I loved this one.
The Tender Bar is a memoir of one man’s life in a bar. JR was a little boy surrounded by women and girls: he lived with his mother, grandmother, aunt and four girl cousins (and a grandfather, uncle and a boy cousin, but still). He felt drawn to men: in his hindsight telling, he felt the lack of a father, and sought male attentions and teachings, and a model for becoming a man. He found this in his uncle, but even more so, in the hallowed space just 142 steps away, where his uncle tended bar.
This is both a bildungsroman and the story of a bar. By some extension, it is thirdly the story of a place: Manhasset, Long Island, a town historically fixated on drinking and comfortable, sociable places to do it in. We see JR’s childhood – deeply chaotic and troubled in his home life, but bolstered by a beloved and mostly stable (if chaotic in their own way) group of men from the bar. We see him grow up, learn about himself and the world, and experiment with concepts of what he owes to his world and what he’ll do with himself. There is always the bar, at the center of these concepts. Eventually, JR becomes an adult, and the bar ages alongside him. Losses come with age, culminating in the losses of September 11, 2001, which were widespread for a town that commuted into the City and into the World Trade Centers.
I loved many things about this book. I loved the format, which begins with some (presumably research-based) backstory about Manhasset, and with some musings on bars and life. (See my book beginning.) I loved Moehringer’s tone: of immense and frequent humor, often self-deprecating, but also of sober reckoning. He made me laugh out loud until I had to put the book down and hold my belly. I liked the perspective he took, the places where his adult’s wisdom did and did not inform his telling of the child’s experience. I felt drawn to the family, the bar community, and JR’s difficulties with differences in class (when he goes off, of all places, to Yale) and geography (moving at one point to Arizona, where his accent stands out). Despite being totally foreign to me, the Manhasset setting made sense, came alive in this telling. (And not for the first time: Manhasset is the model for the setting of The Great Gatsby.) And of course as much as anything I loved this bar: I loved his love for the bar, and sympathized with it, and I loved the place itself. I recognize and feel affection for a place with playfully rude, unhurried service, a divey atmosphere but with professional cocktail construction. It is a literary place, named Dickens in Moehring’s youth and later changed to Publicans but keeping its nod to culture, song and theatre, and especially words. JR tried for years to write about the place while in the place – the concept that the reader knows would eventually become The Tender Bar.
In this place he meets men (and some women) from all walks of life, professors and police officers and bookies and poets and more. He compares the bar to the Iliad (sure to either win my heart or offend me; here, the former):
In fact the bar and the poem complemented each other, like companion pieces. Each smacked of ageless verities about men.
And he goes on to identify the Ajax, the Hector, the Achilles he finds in Publicans.
I’m sure I give the impression that this is a book seeped in testosterone, and that’s not untrue, but it’s more nuanced than that. For years, JR looked for men to teach him what it meant to be a man. It was something of an obsession for this mostly-fatherless boy (although one wonders how much of that is inserted in hindsight). There are women in the story, too, of course: a girl cousin, a girlfriend, female friends, but centrally his mother, from whom he learns a lot. In the end, he acknowledges that she did a better job of many of the virtues he looked to men for, than did the men he found.
He offers nuggets about writing. As attributed to a priest he meets in the bar car of the train from the City back to Manhasset:
Do you know why God invented writers? Because He loves a good story. And He doesn’t give a damn about words. Words are the curtain we’ve hung between Him and our true selves. Try not to think about the words. Don’t strain for the perfect sentence. There’s no such thing. Writing is guesswork. Every sentence is an educated guess, the reader’s as much as yours. Think about that the next time you curl a piece of paper into your typewriter.
I could spend all day on this quotation alone, some of which I’d take issue with – I think words are very important, and I think the perfect sentence is to be sought – but there’s a lot to ponder and a lot of wisdom there.
I feel like I’ve gotten to know JR Moehringer by reading his story, and I like him. I acknowledge his flaws but would be his friend. That’s a fine outcome for a memoir, I think. This was an excellent book, in its stories, its characters, its format, the details of its writing, and its emotional tone. It’s a little like The Liars’ Club in its best parts: funny, self-deprecating, sad, beautiful, brave, honorable, ironic. I raise my glass.
Rating: 9 pet mice.
Filed under: book reviews | Tagged: booze, memoir, nonfiction, sense of place | 1 Comment »