The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer

tender bar

A few years ago, I reviewed Townie, a memoir by Andre Dubus III, in which I speculated that the larger theme justifying the memoir’s publication might be issue of disappearing fathers and abandoned boys. As I mentioned there and discuss in any memoir class I teach, there are plenty of reasons to write a memoir, but only a few that justify publishing one. Unless you are a celebrity, who outside of your circle of friends and family would actually care about your experiences? One reason they might care is if the quality of the writing is excellent, such as in Angela’s Ashes or The Glass Castle. A second is if your memoir addresses some larger theme of interest to society.

Moehringer’s memoir is certainly well written. As a journalist, Moehringer knows how to keep his prose compact while creating the most impact. He has an interesting story to tell and doesn’t need any fancy flourishes to dress it up. Here’s a description of the house where he and his mother—deserted by his father and unable to afford their own place—take refuge:

The worst thing about life at Grandpa’s house was the noise, a round-the-clock din of cursing and crying and fighting, and Uncle Charlie bellowing that he was trying to sleep and Aunt Ruth screaming at her six kids in the nerve-shredding key of a seagull. Just beneath this cacophony was a steady percussion, faint at first, louder as you became aware of it, like the heartbeat deep inside the House of Usher. In the House of Grandpa the heartbeat was supplied by the screen door opening and closing all day long as people came and went . . .

Obviously, there’s a lot of humor here, too, to temper the sadness. Much of it is directed at himself, his mistakes, his awkwardness, but also the humorous approach to life that he learns from the men at Dickens, the local bar, where his Uncle Charlie is a bartender. When he first sees them en masse, they are playing softball as the sun sets. At first he sees the lumbering, overweight men as cartoon characters: “they looked like Blutos and Popeyes and steroidal Elmer Fudds,” but then he realises that they are all laughing, “they couldn’t stop laughing”. When he asks his mother why they are so happy, she tells him: “‘Beer.’”

Yet as we get to know them, each one stands out in brilliant eccentricity coupled with a deep, if flawed, humanity. Moehringer treats them with the tender dignity that Anne Tyler so reliably employs with her misfits and oddballs.

There is sadness, of course, especially related to his larger theme of the plight of a fatherless boy in U.S. society. There are the lonely dreams of a boy listening to his DJ father, a man he doesn’t recall ever seeing so he calls him The Voice. There is the desire to help his struggling mother, forced time after time to return to the house of her father, a house that is falling down filled with furniture held together with duct tape, because he refuses to allow anything to be fixed. Having given up working as soon as he accumulated enough money to provide a subsistence income, Grandpa is a curmudgeon and a bully and possibly insane. There is the self-loathing when Moehringer is unable to provide for his mother after all. However, there is no taint of self-pity here, just as there is no sentimentality in his description of the men at the bar.

And there is the comfort and safety of the bar and the men in it, a haven that we who know better fear will become a trap for the boy who hangs out there, jotting down the funny stories and witticisms on bar napkins. There is the bookstore where Moehringer gets a job at 13 when he discovers the two managers hiding in the back room reading, avoiding customers.

As a single mother, I am well aware of the pitfalls facing fatherless boys, as well as of the resiliency of the boys themselves and their ability to find surrogate fathers. It never occurred to me to look for male role models for my sons in a bar, but I would have been honored to have this collection of men help my boys learn how to be men. Moehringer’s great achievement is making these men with their beer bellies and balding heads, their drinking and gambling, their apparent aimlessness (beyond getting drunk and having a good time) into heroes.

What book have you read recently with an unexpected hero?

One thought on “The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer

  1. […] It’s a compelling read. I was surprised by how well-written it is until I got to the acknowledgments at the end. Agassi credits J.R. Moehringer with transforming their taped interviews into this book, along with input from editors and first readers. He explains that though Moehringer refused to have his own name printed on the cover, Agassi wanted to ensure he got credit for his work. With that, I was no longer surprised. Moehringer is an amazing writer. I’ve written about his extraordinary memoir The Tender Bar. […]

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