Monday, August 20, 2007

The Tender Bar: A Memoir.. Not A Review

The Tender Bar: A Memoir by J.R. Moehringer (Paperback - Aug 1, 2006)
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion (August 1, 2006)
  • Language: English

One may not have to be familiar with the custom of going out to a bar as a part of one’s social activity, or even be a guy to read and enjoy J.R. Moehringer’s memoir “The Tender Bar”, the coming of age story of a boy who grows up without his biological father, is never quite able to escape his shadow for the longest time. Absent though he is. He is still omnipresent, seared into J.R.’s memory as a disembodied voice on the radio (he is a disc jockey). This is a funny, sad, engaging, endearing and a poignant read of a hard to tell story that resonates with humanity.

In the absence of his father the bar (where J.R.’s uncle Charlie works) and men who inhabit that bar play a big role in his life. We get to meet a rich, colorful and a quirky cast of characters including his extended family living in his grandfather’s dilapidated house, and the denizens of “the bar” formerly known as “Dickens” and then “Publicans”. They are also mostly men, who assume a larger than life significance for the boy as he is growing up becoming a composite role model of a missing father. The normal rituals, ballgames, going to the beach and more happen for the author under the tutelage of these men. And acceptance does not come easy initially especially as a kid. He is there, acknowledged but ignored until one day he helps the men out with a word puzzle and everything changes.

Eventually J.R. moves to Arizona (with his mother) and then goes to college, and works at the New York Times, the bar remains a motif and a central character in his life as he comes back to it a number of times. Yes it almost has a life of its own and the author has done a great job describing the place and the characters, and I could feel it coming alive as I read it. I could visualize and even smell the place (or maybe I have been to too many bars).

Publicans becomes a refuge for him at different points in his life (stints at the Home Fashions section at Lord & Taylors after finishing Yale, the seemingly dead end job of a copyboy at the New York Times with only a slim chance to become a reporter) and at times of heartbreak. The issue of alcohol abuse lurks in the background without quite being mentioned, but this worked fine at least for me, most readers will notice at times as the author almost seems to spiral down into it. He walks away from it though.

“Deciding to quit drinking was the easiest thing I ever did. Describing how I did it, and why, and whether or not I will drink again, is much harder.”

A quote simple as it is has a lot of meaning to it.

J.R.’s relationship with his mother (like the rest of the book) is handled in a very even handed manner without being too sentimental. Her desire that he go to Yale or Harvard resonated with me as did a lot of other parts of this excellent memoir.

J.R.’s struggles at Yale and his desire and attempts to fit in or not standout in a milieu that seemed populated by the kids of well off parents lead to a number of gaffes and sad/funny situations (he runs a laundering service for his fellow students for some extra money on the side). The book is full of great anecdotes and repartees that will have you smiling and/or shaking your head. Though this book is that, one cannot escape the underlying strands of loneliness (for some) and the realities of life both inside and outside the bar.

Reading about the experiences of J.R. as he works in a bookstore in Arizona, with two eccentric guys who manage the place was one of the most appealing parts of the book for me. His initial love of books that was restricted to his grandfather’s collection in the basement of his house, flowers while working with Bill (chain smokes but never uses an ashtray) and Bud (when excited sniffs his fist) as a teen. It reminded me of how my own love of reading began as a kid, often from the generosity of neighbors who lent me books especially during the slow summer vacations.

And although I did say this book was not overtly sentimental I was moved by many parts of it, especially after J.R. visits Manhasset (which lost almost 50 people following the WTC attacks on 9/11). It is towards the end of the book that the events of that day bring a newer reality in all its nakedness to the bar and those that inhabit it’s world.

“The tender bar” appealed to me for another more personal reason. The author J.R. went to school at Yale University in New Haven, CT. I called this small city home for almost a decade and it holds fond memories for me. J.R. talks about his time at Yale and his time in New Haven which includes memories that center around the lovely campus of Yale and streets and other places in the city. I found myself revisiting some of them as I read this memoir.

I was a bit unsure at the onset if I would really enjoy this book, but I am so glad that I read it. This book to me is about dreaming about dreams that almost seem out of reach and persisting despite the numerous knocks and follies encountered along the way. To use a well worn cliché it is often about the journey and not the destination, which is what “Tender Bar” reminded me of.

And I am glad despite all the struggles things have worked out well for Moehringer. He won the Pulitzer in 2000 for feature writing and was a finalist for his article "Resurrecting the Champ," which originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. The article talked about his attempts to track down former boxing champ "Battlin'" Bob Satterfield and is now a movie “Resurrecting the champ” starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett.


Aditi said...

well written enjoyed reading abt it.. i am sure the movie is worth watching
whre the picture on the header taken?

Lotus Reads said...

Sanjay, this truly does sound like a wonderful book and you've done a great job on the review. I have seen this book in the stores and I was enchanted by the title "A Tender Bar" (after all, "tender" is an unusual adjective to use for a bar) but now I know why.

So wonderful that the bar became a place of learning, support and guidance for the author as a young man and I am so heartened to learn about his success as a journalist and that he is a Pulitzer prize winner!

I, too, love books based in places I have lived in, it is always so nice re-visit old haunts and stomping grounds with the author.

I have a question for do you go about choosing your books? I find that you read the nicest books and watch the most interesting movies, hence the question.

Thanks for another wonderful review!

Sanjay said...

@Aditi. Thanks. The picture is of the East Rock park in New Haven, CT. It is taken from a jogging trail that I used to run on. I took it during a visit back some time back.

Sanjay said...

Thank you Lotus for your comment. You are very generous with your words I am not sure I deserve that much praise. :) Thank you.

Isn't it fascinating how book title's come about. Like you I wondered why a bar was "tender", now I know. :) As much as I thought he might be wasting part of life drinking away, the bar and it's denizens did serve as a surrogate family esp as father figures and buddies. I was pulling for the author and like you I am glad to see him do well.

You make a great point about the draw of books based in places one has lived in. I found myself revisiting places in New Haven along with the author and they brought forth my memories as well.

My method of choosing books and movies.. I often look to your wonderful blog for books, you have very eclectic reading tastes. I also use the links to other book blogs and review sites from your blog, the NYT book review, the Guardian book site, the New Yorker and NPR. For movies it is again the New Yorker, the times, NPR, BBC and the web sites of two local independent theaters, . the TheaterN in Wilmington and the Bryn Mawr film institute in Bryn Mawr. I also look at Netflix and I have found wonderful books thru your blog the other book sites and movies from the sites that I mentioned.

Again thank you for your kind words and thank you for stopping by.

Keshi said...

Sounds good...


Diana said...

You're back! How lovely!

I really enjoy reading your not-a-reviews.

Id it is said...

Thanks for the heads up...sounds like an interesting read!

Isn't it strange how an unusual title makes one pick up a book! I wonder how writers haven't picked upon this... a catchy title bumps up the initial sales; "On Bullshit" was one such title!

starry nights said...

HI Sanjay..have not been around for some time.I like the picure on the header. Thanks for the review, sounds like an interesting book to read.How are you doing?

Anali said...

Welcome back! This sounds like a great book. The way you described it was so vivid that it felt like it should already be a movie. And I just saw some previews for the movie "Resurrecting The Champ." It looks really good.

ML said...

Excellent review. I always like books where there's something I can relate to personally.