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Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: The Tender Bar

I love to read.  It is most certainly the "hobby" that defines me and the pasttime that, almost as much as people, serves as a mile-marker in my life.  I remember the Christmas my mother gave me Gone with The Wind.  I remember the night I finished Little Women.  I remember the apartment where I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.   I remember where I was when A Thousand Splendid Suns made me cry.  I remember stacking my little cubby at summer camp full of books, and tracking the progress of those seven weeks by the progress I was making through my miniature bookshelves.

I remember the winter day when I was ten years old and I spent the entire -- as in breakfast-to-dinner -- day in a straight-backed chair in the living room reading.  It wasn't a time out (what book nerd does anything remotely remarkable enough to merit day-long punishment?).  It was an indulgence: snowy day, preoccupied sisters, and no school -- let's get our reading on!

So me and reading go way back, in a dedicated way.  I have the supremely awkward middle school pictures and the no-boyfriend-'til-college track record to prove it.  Boy, did my husband nab himself a WINNER!!!

After my son was born six months ago, though, I found myself having a hard time concentrating in my usual way on whatever book was in my hands.  Normally when I'm reading a book, I plan my day around those moments when I can sneak in a few more pages or chapters, and I think about the characters all day long.  I used to walk dozens of blocks in New York City with my nose in a book.  My favorite part of city-living was being able to read on the subway or bus when I was commuting to work or anywhere else.  When I run on a treadmill, I use one of those plastic do-hickeys or whatever other device I can fashion to hold my book, and the pages fly as the miles drag.

But post-baby #2, I found myself scanning paragraphs and forcing myself to make time to read.  I plodded through books, and when I finally finished, I realized I hadn't even really enjoyed what I'd read. 

I frieked the eff out.  Was I broken?

But then my Easter miracle came early.  I started reading The Tender Bar, a memoir by J. R. Moehringer.  And I was me again.

I heard someone say once that every book is a variation on a single theme: a hero/heroine who encounters an obstacle and ultimately triumphs over that obstacle (with tragedies simply following that same formula but applying it in the reverse).  The Tender Bar is helpful evidence in support of the triumphant vein of that thesis.

J. R. is the story's hero, and his obstacle is the identity crisis he suffers as a young boy when he feels and acknowledges the gaping hole his absent father left in his life when he abandoned seven-month-old J.R. and his mother.  For years, J. R.'s only connection with his father was via radio frequency, after he learned that his father was a disc jockey whose programs could be picked up on the dilapadated stereo he was able to find.  J. R.'s tenuous connection with The Voice, as J. R. dubs him, becomes the relationship that haunts him for years: sometimes J. R. tries to force the issue and figure out how to bring his father back into the family fold, sometimes he writes him off, and sometimes he simply loses track of him altogether.

To fill the hole his father left behind, J. R. looks for other personalities to become his anchor to windward.  In his earliest years, his mother serves as his beacon.  But the pressure of making her happy and keeping her provided for eventually proves to be too much, and J. R. distances himself from her, even as he knows how much they need each other.  Other family members, like the cousins he sometimes lives with and, for brief moments, his grandparents, take turns filling the void.  Each of them are filled with their own insecurities and short-comings, however, and they don't have the energy or the character to provide the constancy J. R. needs.

Enter Dickens (later known as Publicans), the bar located 142 steps up Plandome Road from his grandparents' house in Manhasset, N.Y., a commuter village outside New York City.  Publicans is where J. R.'s uncle tends bar, where the town goes to celebrate and commiserate, where last call is a mere formality, where boys become men and men become old, where the game is always on and the conversation is always lively, where the nicknames outnumber the names, where loyalties run deep and friendships run forever. 

Publicans is where J. R. figures out who he wants to become and starts trying to become him.  He has his first drink there, but he also mails his application to Yale from there, takes the notes that become his memoir there, nurses his first heartache there, and learns to love the Mets there.  From his perch on a barstool, he has a bird's eye view of the town and the men who live in it. 

Moehringer describes those men in such vivid detail that I felt like I'd spent years at the bar with them myself.  Much of that description comes through his narration of stories that take place at the bar and prominently feature those men, such as Colt and Bob the Cop and Jimbo and Fuckembabe and Smelly.  He talks of going to the beach with them, getting drunk with them, betting with them, trading literary quotes with them, and mourning with them.  You see how the bar becomes the place where J. R. is most himself, and most at home.  Not surprisingly, over the course of his young life, J. R. is often homesick for the bar -- more than he ever misses his mother or wonders about his father.

Don't be confused.  This is not a seedy book.  It is not a depressing book.  It is not a book about the makings of an alcoholic, though drinking obviously plays a role in the book and there are undercurrents of a nascent drinking problem as J. R. leaves college and tries to get his journalism career off the ground. 

Instead, it's a book about the village that helped raise this boy; a village that stepped in when the boy thought he was forever stranded in a no-man's land of abandonment, poverty, and lack of opportunity.  It just so happens that the village fit inside the four walls of a bar called Publicans.

If you never thought a book about a bar could be touching and heart-lifiting, prove yourself wrong.  If you want a unique take on a coming-of-age book, you've found it.  If you need your reading machine fixed, consider this your mechanic.  Cheers to that.

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