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The Tender Bar

The first point to make about The Tender Bar (Hyperion, 2005) is that the author, J R Moehringer, is not served a drink at the bar of the title until he reaches legal drinking age, which at the time, in New York State, is eighteen. It is not until that first drink that he enters the bar during open hours. Prior visits have been in the company of his Uncle Charlie, one of the bartenders, and other men who work there. These men did nothing to encourage his alcohol consumption.

They did nothing to discourage it, either.

I've spent plenty of time in bars in my life, but always for self-destructive purposes, never for companionship. It was muted self-destruction, to be sure, disguised as a search for transcendence and insight. Perhaps there's a book that explains why it is that young minds believe that the ideas that accompany inebriation will lead to useful revelation, but I haven't seen one. The illusion is mighty powerful. Bars were also places where other people showed up and things happened. Or might. Mostly, in fact, they didn't, but there was always the lottery of possibility. If you're lucky, you wise up to the folly of these delusions, and stay home, drinking a lot less. When I was about thirty-five, the magic of bars simply evaporated. Time spent at a bar became a glaring waste of time. J R Moehringer was about ten years younger when he reached the conclusion "that drinking and trying felt like opposite impulses."

Mr Moehringer's drinking had not been self-destructive, and not really escapist, either, but mimic. The men in his life drank as a matter of course. They drank at a Manhasset Bar with literary pretensions, called Dickens at first and later Publicans, both under the magnetic management of one Steve, a big man gifted with a Cheshire-cat smile. Little J R was as preoccupied by manhood as any boy has ever been. When he said "no" to alcohol, what he was really putting behind him was the custom of spending his free waking hours in the company of other drinkers, of rooting his life in a club of admired, but flawed, men.

J R Moehringer was born into a family of extremely flawed men. His grandfather, under whose roof the author lived for most of the years covered in this memoir (at least part time), had wanted to be a professional ball player, and when that career was disappointed, he hunkered down to making enough money to retire. Actually well-to-do, he was a miser who denied his wife the life she deserved, verbally abusing her all the while. He was content to watch his house become scandalously seedy. The author's father, an itinerant radio man with a great bass voice, tried to kill his mother, and might have done so if J R, aged three, hadn't been awakened by the fracas and come to door, screaming. Uncle Charlie, his mother's brother, was a hollow man, outwardly a sporting gentleman who came alive behind the bar, but inwardly a gambler who piled up debts. He, too, lived at grandpa's, but it took him a long time to notice his nephew. Finally, there was one Harry, married to J R's mother's sister, Ruth but usually elsewhere. The women were kind and supportive, but J R worried about becoming "girly." Maybe because engaging men were in short supply, the boy pined for a grown man's attention.

When he was about eleven (not when he was eight, as the dust jacket suggests), J R was taken up by his Uncle Charlie and his colleagues. J R's mother had moved to Arizona and had sent him home for the summer. Someone suggested to Charlie that he take the boy to the beach with his pals. At first, the men ignored the boy, in a kind sort of way. Then they discovered that he was bright - that he could solve the Wordy Gurdies! The Wurdy Gurdy was a daily newspaper puzzle. "Terrific Gary?" "Super Cooper." That sort of thing. When it was shown that they were a snap for J R, his status was instantly transformed.

That was the day everything changed. I'd always thought there had to be a secret password into the men's circle. Words were the password. Language legitimized me in the men's eyes. After decoding the Wordy Gurdy I was no longer the group mascot. The men didn't include me in every conversation, certainly, but they no longer treated me as a seagull that had wandered into their midst. I went from being a vague presence to a real person. Uncle Charlie no longer jumped a foot in the air every time he found me standing beside him, and the other men took more careful notice of me, talked to me, taught me things. They taught me how to grip a curveball, how to swing a nine iron, how to throw a spiral, how to play seven-card stud. They taught me how to shrug, how to frown, how to take it like a man. They taught me hot to stand and promised me that a man's posture is his philosophy. They taught me to say the word "fuck," gave me this word as if it were a pocketknife or a good suit of clothes, something every boy should have. They showed me the many ways "fuck" could release anger, scare off enemies, rally allies, make people laugh in spite of themselves. They taught me to pronounce it forcefully, gutturally, even gracefully, to get my money's worth from the word. Why inquire meekly what's going on, they said, when you can demand, "What the fuck?" They demonstrated the many verbal recipes in which "fuck" was the main ingredient. A burger at Gilgo, for instance, was twice as tasty when it was a "Gilgo fucking burger."

And they let him see the inside of Dickens - during daylight.

But the road to manhood was not going to be as straightforward as Uncle Charlie might have foreseen. J R would be blessed with another set of fairy godfathers, ones whose gifts would conflict with his. Back in Arizona for the school year, J R eventually ran into Bill and Bud, the malingering managers of a chain bookstore in a neglected mall. They hired J R to man the register.

Bill and Bud both seemed to fear people, all people, except each other, which was one reason they hid in the stockroom. The other reason was that they read. Constantly. They had read everything ever written and were hell-bent to read everything new published each month, which required that they cloister themselves like medieval monks. Though in their mid-thirties, both men lived with their mothers, had never been married, and seemed to have no aspirations to move on or marry. They had no aspirations beyond reading, and no interests outside the store, though their interest in me was growing daily. They questioned me about my mother, my father, Uncle Charlie and the men, and they were fascinated by my relationship with Dickens. They asked about Steve and his motivation in giving the bar such a literary name, which led to a conversation about books generally. Bill and Bud quickly gleaned that I loved books and knew nothing about them. Through a series of rapid, probing questions they ascertained that I was intimately familiar with only The Jungle Book and Minute Biographies. They were appalled, and angry with my teachers.

"What are you reading in school right now?" Bill asked.

"Scarlett's Letter," I said.

He put a hand over his eyes. Bud sniffed his fist. "It's - The Scarlet Letter," Bud said. "Not Scarlett's. It's not the sequel to Gone With The Wind."

Under the tutelage of these odd hermits, J R was set on a course of valuable reading. He was also encouraged to apply to Yale University. He got in! I wept with joy when I read this, but I was soon preparing to weep with despair when he got kicked out, as seemed inevitable for rather a long time. Reconciling Yale and Dickens was almost beyond Mr Moehringer's fortitude, especially as the student discovered, without realizing it, that there was a limit to how supportive Uncle Charlie and the others would be if he did really well. They wanted J R to experience success, but not to be successful. "Successful" would carry him out of their class. Nothing better illustrates the vital importance of sports in the lives of such men. Every game, every victory, is without consequence - without a consequence that will survive the season. The ambition to excel, which came to J R naturally, was also curtailed by a lack of self-esteem that was inversely proportional to his good standing at the bar - at which he was now a customer. (But bartenders' nephews don't pay for their drinks.) The young man was also jackknifed by an abortive love affair with a beautiful girl from the right side of the tracks. What he never learned at Yale, or at The New York Times, where he worked after college, was whether all the trying in the world would ever get him out of his native milieu. Slowly but steadily, the light dawns. In the fifteen or twenty pages toward the end, in which the author works out this puzzle, and finds an unlooked-to exemplar of manliness, The Tender Bar becomes downright exciting.

Part of the attraction of this book for me, I must admit, was simple narcissism, a matter of owning very similar initials. "J R," it turns out, while legitimately appearing on Mr Moehringer's birth certificate, are not his initials. His initials would be "J J," for "John Joseph." After leaving her abusive husband, the author's mother moved the letters "J R" from the back to the front of his name. When people would ask what "J R" stood for, its bearer would wearily have to convince them that it stood for nothing. Nomenclature issues escalated in 1979, when "Who shot J R [Ewing]?" led the national conversation, and this intersection of the personal and the public is covered in one of the many funny chapters in The Tender Bar. I have good reason to remember that episode. For three years, it was difficult for me to get anyone to remember that my initials (which stand for "Robert John" - can we be more boring, please?) came in a different order. What surprised me was Mr Moehringer's response to a much more significant surprise about his name. At one of their very rare meetings, the author's father told him that his father had stolen the name in order ingratiate himself with a prospective employer. His actual name had been "Attanasio." It would certainly give me pause to discover that a significant part of my ancestry were Sicilian, not the German I'd taken for granted. Mr Moehringer's lack of affect on this subject is eloquent testimony to the fact that, through his mother and her family, he has always regarded himself as Irish. What the other side might be didn't make no never mind.

More than once, The Tender Bar reminded me of The Adventures of Augie March, the Saul Bellow novel that has lodged at the bottom of my fiction pile. It's at the bottom because it's the biggest book in the stack, and it's also one that I can't get on with. (I'm stalled on the narrator's way to Mexico.) But The Tender Bar is not a work of art in Bellow's sense. It is a newspaperman's book, a sharp and clear record of conversations noted on cocktail napkins years ago and recently confirmed, where possible, for publication. Only three names were changed - all ladies in Mr Moehringer's life. Come to think of it, though, full names are not common.

You can read The Tender Bar as a picaresque gallery of "characters." You can read it as a probing look at the problematics of American manhood. I read it as both. (November 2005)

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