I read J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar for my book club. We usually read mysteries, but in this case the owner of the restaurant where we meet offered to buy our dinners if we read this book and discussed it with him. We weren’t about to turn that down!
JR was the only son of a single mother. His father disappeared when JR was just a baby, leaving his wife and son to struggle financially and emotionally. Though his mother was a strong, determined, and intelligent woman, JR needed more: he looked for father-figures everywhere he went, in his crazy and abusive grandfather, in teachers, in employers. Finally, in the setting of a great American bar called Publicans, he found what he needed: the bartenders and the regulars formed a sort of fatherhood-by committee that brought him up and taught him to be a man. Over the years, Publicans was JR’s proving ground, his sanctuary, his observational post and his home. When he went to Yale, he came home each weekend of freshman year to drink at Publicans. When he became a copyboy for the New York Times, he nestled back into Publicans as often as he could. When his heart was broken and when he had something to celebrate, he brought it all to the guys at Publicans. And bit by blundering bit, he learned who he was and where he wanted to be.
There was a lot to like about this memoir. Moehringer is a journalist, and he tells his story straightforwardly, with an ear for dialogue and a keen sense of the details that will matter about a story: the way, for example, differences in dress can make you feel that you will never belong, or having the right name can make you feel that you finally fit in. Some of the episodes were very touching. Perhaps my favorite moment was when Moehringer found a job at a bookstore. His employers, Bill and Bud, were so antisocial that they would never have left the store if given their way, but they still taught him more than anyone else about literature, the power of words, and disillusionment.
Overall, however, the memoir was a disappointment to me. Rightly or wrongly, I have different expectations of a memoir than I do of a novel. When novels explain too much, when they draw the conclusions for me, or preach to me, it’s annoying. I can do that very well on my own; I like the ambiguity. But a memoir should be different. I want the author to draw some conclusions about her own life, to think about youthful episodes, to tie details together, to think about the past with the benefit of distance and (presumably) wisdom. I consider some of the truly great memoirs I’ve read — Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood springs to mind — and while the story is vivid and brilliant, there’s some thought and reflection there, too. Same with memoirs like Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story or Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted. Vivid storytelling, accompanied by reflection and even research.
The Tender Bar, on the other hand, was one of the least reflective books I’ve read in a long time. “They taught me to be a man,” he says, over and over, but what does that mean? What does it mean to him, or to the guys at the bar, or to society? To throw a punch, to tie a tie, to bet on a horse, to get drunk, to sleep with women, to defend your mother. He does no work at all on what masculinity is, or could be, or should be. His reflections on the drinking culture at the bar (serious alcoholic behavior) is limited to observation, not reflection. These men are celebrated in glowing terms — I’m not saying they shouldn’t be — but Moehringer was driving around with them under the influence since he was eight, and propping up the bar itself since eighteen. Not Okay. There’s a little more reflection on his mother — a paragraph here and there — but virtually none on his long-term, on-again, off-again girlfriend. What was going on there? Class issues, insecurity, yes, but what about the drinking and the masculinity? What about the ongoing notion in the bar that women are inscrutable and crazy — the responsibility-free idea that since men and women can’t understand each other, they may as well not try?
Most people at my book club really liked this one. They thought it didn’t need more philosophy, and that the reflection was between the lines. I thought that wasn’t enough, that if you’re going to describe a life that blunders along (as most of ours do), you should give it some shape and structure by the power of your ideas. This is probably a matter of taste. If reading about a boyhood that finds its natural home in a great and welcoming bar sounds like your kind of thing, then you will probably love The Tender Bar.