This article originally appeared at Head Butler.
J.R. Moehringer’s father, a noted disc jockey, was out of his mother’s life before J.R. was old enough to remember that he was ever around. (“My father was a man of many talents, but his one true genius was disappearing.”) His mother, suddenly poor, moves into her family’s house in Manhasset, Long Island.
In that house: J.R.’s mother, grandmother, aunt and five female cousins.
Also in that house: Uncle Charlie, a bartender at Dickens, a Manhasset establishment beloved by locals who appreciate liquor in quantity— “every third drink free” — and strong opinions, served with a twist.
A boy needs a father. If he doesn’t have one, he needs some kind of man in his life. Or men, because it can indeed take a village.
You know how a book like this must work: First the heartbreak, then the healing. Early on, there’s a scene that tells you how deep the wound is: J.R.’s father calls to say he’s taking J.R., age 8 or so, to a Mets game. The appointed hour comes. And goes. Late that night, his mother comes home and asks about the game. And then this:
I wrapped my arms around her, startled by how much I loved her and how intensely I needed her. As I held my mother, clung to her, cried against her legs, it struck me that she was all I had, and if I didn’t take good care of her I’d be lost.
To take good care of her, J.R. must become a man. But where will he find the men who will help him grow up?
He starts with Uncle Charlie. One night J.R. watches “Casablanca”…. and sees his uncle as Humphrey Bogart. And although he was just eight years old, “I began to dream of going to Dickens as other boys dream of visiting Disneyland.”
J.R. gets his chance when his grandfather runs out of cigarettes and he’s sent to the bar to buy a pack. The air was “a beautiful pale yellow.” Each breath “tasted like beer.” There were “white-faced men with orange hair and red noses.” And “astonishing” women.
J.R.’s a good ten years away from being legal. But Uncle Charlie starts including him in outings with the bar’s inner circle. One drunken day at the beach they’re stumped by a word game.
“Richard’s Ingredients — what is that?”
J.R. had the answer: “Nixon’s Fixin’s.”
“The kid,” Colt said.
“Holy shit,” Bobo said.
“Give him another,” Joey D said.
Uncle Charlie looked at J.R., then back at the newspaper. He read: “Terrific Gary.”
J.R. said, “Super Cooper.”
With that, everything changes. The men no longer treat J.R. “as a seagull that had wandered into their midst.” Now they teach him: how to throw a curve, how to shrug, the importance of confidence. There is a trip to Shea Stadium so magical it more than makes up for his father’s cruelty — and at the very end of that chapter, there is a change so sudden, so dramatic, so totally sad, that you have to read it a second time, just to believe it. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
The characters from the bar are — what else? — wonderfully engaging. Uncle Charlie, of course. A tough guy, Joey D. A Vietnam vet, Cager. Bob the Cop. Smelly. Colt. And a chorus of major drinkers. No wonder that, in time, the bar itself became J.R.’s father, “its dozens of men melding into one enormous male eye looking over my shoulder.”
But it’s in the high school years that “The Tender Bar” really catches fire. We’re past the easy jokes now —- “Beer: a beverage, but also a meal” — and into experiences that resonate. The guys who turn J.R. on to books. His first time. Applying to college. Getting in. The girl friend from heaven — and hell. Graduation. The hilarious first job, and then the real one. And, at every turn, the men of the Dickens bar: their stories, their wisdom and their folly.
I’m being vague on the facts here, and for a reason: While I desperately want you to read this book, I don’t want to ruin it for you. And J.R. Moehringer is such a gifted writer — he has a Pulitzer Prize for journalism — that his chapters are structured like small, linked bombs. The detonations are cumulative; by the end, you’re deeply immersed in half a dozen lives. And, of course, a few deaths.
But, you say, a bar? Moehringer provides context:
In ancient Greece, there were amphitheaters, and there was plenty of wine served at amphitheaters. There needs to be a place where people come together, freed from their possessions and temporarily free of their houses and their identities to some extent and where they can be in semidarkness and tell the old stories. This is the very place where I decided that I wanted to find a way to tell stories for a living, and it’s also the place where I first saw a man give his memoir. It was at this bar where I didn’t know what it was at the time but I saw a guy tell his life story. And when he was done, he felt better about his life.
It’s said that time spent in a bar is, like time spent fly-fishing, time outside of life. Moehringer captures that brilliantly. In his years at the oak plank, he made many notes on paper napkins, and what he heard has served him well, for his one-liners are timeless and priceless. “Do not laugh at me, pal,” a man says. “My mother laughed at me and I had her operated on needlessly.” Great stuff, and there’s lots more of it.
Moehringer collected these notes, and, for years, thought he could turn them into a novel. He couldn’t. Then 9/11 came along. Nearly 50 people from Manhasset died in the Towers; Moehringer, who was by then working in the West, came home to write about his home town. No jokes here, just funerals, and “the kind of crying I could tell would last for years.”
The man who writes about those men and women is a writer the men of Dickens would be proud of — he’s not only learned what they had to teach him, he’s gone beyond. He’s performed psychic surgery on himself; he’s at once painfully self-aware and fully functional. He can go from lunatic to serious in a sentence. He can forgive. Many talk of “moving on,” and their jaws are all that moves; this guy did it, and it shows in every sentence.
The bar is no more. The men who schooled J.R, are, by now, dead or decrepit. But they — and his mother — did a helluva job on this kid. And he has returned the favor with an act of love, a remembrance that picks at every scab and still delivers hope.
I couldn’t put “The Tender Bar” down.
—Photo credit: vincent ☆/Flickr