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I received J. R. Moehringer's memoir, "The Tender Bar," as a gift from someone who knew I was a reader of the underground writer Charles Bukowski (1920 --1994) whose novels and poems deal with hard drinking in squalid flats, poverty, horseracing, and exploits with women. His story "Barfly" became a movie some years ago.
But there is in fact little resemblance between Moerhinger and Bukowski. Moehringer is a successful reporter, a graduate of Yale, a fellow at Harvard, and the recipient of a Pulitzer prize. Moehringer's book tells the story of his troubled early life and of his experiences in a tavern called "Dickens" and subsequently "Publicans" in his hometown of Manhasset, Long Island. Manhasset is about 17 miles from New York City and formed the setting, as Moerhinger frequently reminds his readers, of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." His voice is more ambitious and literary than that of Bukowski, a great deal more social (Bukowski frequently drank alone), and much less given to failure, violence, and self-loathing. Moehringer explores how he was able to make a success of his life while Bukowski dramatizes his near-continuous pattern of failure.
Moehringer shows the reader how Dickens and the many men who frequented it (Women figure in the bar as well, but Moehringer was not particularly aware of them as a child.)became important to him as male figures when his father abandoned his family early in his son's life. Moehringer's mother, the hero of this story, unskilled, young, and ambitious for her son struggled valiantly to raise him and young JR (we hear too much in the story of the origins of this name)felt heavily weighed from childhood through early adulthood by his mother's expectations. As a young boy, he experienced the life and camaraderie of the bar as a source of fellowship and an escape from the problems of life. Moehringer shows how the bar both shaped and made the author even while it came close to destroying him.
The book reads well with scenes and passages of eloquence, but it is uneven. I tended to grow impatient with the lengthy scenes in Dickens and with many of the characters who seemed to me oversentimentalized. (There are some exceptions. I enjoyed reading about Moehringer's companion named "Bob the Cop"). I had difficulty sharing or even understanding, in some places, Moehringer's attraction to the bar or to the life he describes and which, eventually, he escapes. It seems to me a harsher, less romantic life than he would have the reader believe.
Some of the scenes in the book that deal with the author's sexual and romantic experiences are well done. But the real interest of the book lies in the unexpected detail and picture, more often than not outside the bar. Thus we meet Bill and Bob, two eccentric middle-aged proprietors of a used-book store in Phoenix who introduce young JR to the love of books. In a chapter called "Father Amtrak" JR receives memorable and sage advice from a priest he meets on a train, as he worries about his grades at Yale and his breakup with his girlfriend. There are some excellent scenes between JR and his childhood friend, McGraw, an aspiring major league pitcher, which inspire JR to toughen himself and to move forward, and some memorable discussions of books and the rewards of reading between JR, Bob the Cop and others. The Preface of the book is well-written, giving a good overview of Dickens and its place in the author's life. The concluding Epilogue is also thoughtful and ties the story together. Thus, while there is some sentimentality and misdirection in this book, the story and the protagonist ultimately come through.
I think this book is more a tribute to a mother's love, to the value of persistence through adversity, and to a growing devotion to reading, writing, and wisdom than it is to the world of pubs such as Dickens. It is a good inspiring read and a worthy first effort.
Jul 31, 2015
It's easy to understand Andre Agassi's being so appreciative of help from JR. Anyone's life story is filled with ups and downs and sideways...what's so nice is to be drawn into that ebb and flow with such clarity and appreciation. Could not put it down.
Nov 1, 2007
Love, acceptance and guidance at The Tender BAR.
One hears a lot of things about people who frequent a bar, but this was not just a bar but the "tender bar" where relatives dispensed good advice, love, and acceptance mixed in with bountiful amounts of alcohol for good measure. If you can overlook the continuous drunken nature of the participants ,which might be hard if you have a family history of alcoholism, you will love the trail J. R. Moehringer takes you on as he grows to be an inquisitive teenager and an apprehensive Ivy Leaguer to a credible journalist. The ride isn't easy. There are tears and disappointments amidst the happy times. Tender but tough. That was the type of bar that nurtured . Hats off to Mr. Moehringer whose memories will always soften a fall but grace a reward.
Sep 13, 2007
Great writer, wonderfully drawn characters, couldn't wait to get back to reading it each night. What I loved most is that it doesn't rely on extreme and shocking events to carry it. No one gets raped, molested or thrown in a Turkish prison. It's an honest, realistic account of growing up searching for male role models and one's own identity. Refreshing in the wake of the embellishment scandals of 'A Million Little Pieces' and "Running With Scissors'. Our book club rated it a 3.75 out of 5 (I gave it a 4.5).
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