“Parents,” an old roommate of mine said after an exasperating phone conversation with his mother. “Don't ever have them.” The joke still resonates because it captures the absurdity of family drama: The only way to escape it is to avoid being born. One of the comforts of literature, however, is to remind us that no matter how great our suffering might be, there are those who have it much, much worse.

That's the impression one gets reading Nowhere Near Normal, Traci Foust's memoir about growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Chief among Foust's compulsions was a peculiar kind of counting where the consequences of ignoring her impulses overshadowed reason.

For instance, if she failed to listen for the sound of gas escaping the stovetop burners after she turned them off, she would cause the gruesome death of her entire family. In Foust's imagination, “what if” became “they're all gonna die.”

That's a lot of baggage for a kid to deal with under normal circumstances, but this is a girl who grew up in a tiny apartment with her older sister, domineering single mother and grandmother—none of whom understood what's wrong with Traci.

Though Foust's project feels like it ought to be rooted in the realism of daytime television, it's so skillfully written it reads like a modernist novel. Foust grew up in northern California and lives in San Diego, but it's the psychological landscape that resonates.

Kevin Wilson's debut novel The Family Fang takes the opposite approach: What would it be like for two mostly normal kids to grow up in a house where the parents are peculiar?

Perhaps “peculiar” is an understatement. Caleb and Camille Fang are aging performance artists enjoying a second taste of fame. Video recordings of their obscure happenings from the '80s and '90s are now easily accessible via the internet, much to the mortification of their adult children Annie and Buster, aka Child A and Child B.

The Fangs specialized in creating disturbances, and they didn't balk at putting their children in the middle of them. In fact, Annie and Buster often unwittingly played pivotal roles. As a result, their concept of what's normal and what's not is hopelessly skewed, leaving them poorly prepared for the stressful situations they face as an actress and author.

What makes Wilson's novel so ingenious is that at the heart of the family drama is the ageold question that all creative people face: What are you willing to sacrifice for your art? But The Family Fang raises the bar: If it's impossible to live one's life beholden to both family and art, is the attempt to strike a balance noble or foolish?

The myth of the non-dysfunctional family may be a relic of the past, but isn't it interesting that when you take society's least functional people and put them together, they act just like a family? That seems to be the premise behind Joshua Mohr's Damascus. The novel, Mohr's third, is set in San Francisco's Mission District and takes its name from a dive bar owned by a man named Owen who brings cheer to his customers by wearing a Santa Claus suit to the bar every day.

Sadly, the only cheer Owen's customers crave is the kind that comes in bottles. The motley crew includes a terminally ill cancer patient, a sadistically violent veteran and a woman who gives hand jobs in the bathroom for money.

Owen is only a bender away from becoming just like his customers, but he's a good person at heart. His niece, Daph, recognizes this and tries to help him make Damascus a better place. But when she talks her uncle into letting her friend hang her controversial art on the walls, the consequences are disastrous.

Mohr writes as if he's logged hours in places like Damascus: “… an old Tom Waits song seeped through the walls from the jukebox, the sink dripped, the toilet ran, the light flickered its paltry wattage like the gloomiest disco ball in the world.”

With a remarkably subtle hand, Mohr leads the reader through a minefield of explosive topics: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, living with cancer and dealing with addiction. Damascus transcends all that and is nothing less than a primer on how to love those incapable of loving themselves. And what family couldn't use more of that?

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.


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