- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005


By J. R. Moehringer

Hyperion, $23.95, 368 pages


When my mother would rag my father for stopping after work to have a drink with “the fellas,” his less-than-perfectly-logical defense was, “It’s not the alcohol, honey, it’s the camaraderie.” Memorist J. R. Moehringer wouldn’t just understand that response, he’d think it was perfectly logical. But then in his case the big attraction, at least at first, was the fellas; then it was the fellas and the alcohol; and, finally, once again it was just the fellas.

“My personal list of needs was long. An only child, abandoned by my father, I needed a family, a home, and men. Especially men. I needed men as mentors, heroes, role models, and as a kind of masculine counterweight to my mother, grandmother, aunt and five female cousins with whom I lived. The bar provided me with all the men I needed, and one or two men who were the last thing I needed.”

As the author — a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing — explains, in as entertaining and enjoyable a voice as I’ve encountered in quite a while, that need was met throughout his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood by a motley crew of regulars who populate a bar run by his Uncle Steve.

The desertion of the boy and his mother by his father, a peripatetic radio personality the child knows only as “The Voice,” a disembodied presence he tries to find by spinning the dial, has left him emotionally adrift, very vulnerable and hurting. Unfortunately, this is a memoir, not a novel, which means that some of the funny scenes — and there are very many of them in this coming of (drinking) age tale — are more than a little bittersweet.

In addition to the bar and what it comes to mean to the author, there’s one other constant, his devotion to his mother. The disappearing act of Moehringer senior not only messed up junior’s life, but also that of the boy’s mother. Nonetheless, thanks to her son’s writing skills, she comes across as a very strong character who manages to play the terrible hand dealt by her no-good husband without folding.

When things get too much for her, she’s forced to move herself and J.R. back into the aforementioned house of women, which is owned and occupied by her mean and eccentric father. It’s an establishment as devoid of fun and good fellowship as bar is filled with it.

No matter how many times she gets defeated in her truly heroic quest to establish a home of their own — at one point even moving to Arizona — she never stops trying. Seeing this as a young child, J.R. vows to get into a good school, become a lawyer and realize that dream. But the further he gets drawn into the life of the bar, the more the reader fears it will stay just that, a dream.

The bar in question, called Dickens, and then later and for much longer Publicans, both names in tribute to the owner’s Anglophilia and his love of books and writers, is located in Manhasset, Long Island, which Mr. Moehringer describes as “my hard-drinking hometown,” and “the backdrop for ‘The Great Gatsby’ … . We strode each day across Fitzgerald’s abandoned stage set.”

The romanticism suggested by those two quotes, which appear at the very beginning of the book, suffuses the narrative to a degree some readers may find off-putting, especially readers who’ve had first-hand experience with the casualties of the drinking wars. The great comeback lines are everywhere, but there’s hardly a black eye or a split lip in the joint.

While all the men in “The Tender Bar” may not be good-looking (in fact, several border on the freakish), they are all fascinating, most of them are funny, and, with a couple notable exceptions, they are excellent drinking buddies, nothing if not convivial.

This is exactly what draws J. R. Moehringer to the bar, well before he’s of legal drinking age. With the help of this ragtag bunch of father substitutes, many of whom are also damaged goods, the author-narrator manages to get his act together. He’s accepted by, and eventually graduates from, Yale, and then finagles a menial position with The New York Times that, against great odds, leads to a tryout as a reporter.

At that crucial point, the wheels start to come off. I won’t spoil things by revealing how it all plays out, but I do feel duty bound to warn that when it comes to describing the drinking life, the mood of “The Tender Bar” is closer to “Las Vegas” than “The Lost Weekend.”

Enormous quantities of booze pour down the throats of the regulars of Publicans, and though the author gets a late start because of his youth he wastes little time overcoming that handicap. But it’s not until 26 pages from the end of the book that J.R. asks himself, “Am I a drunk?” He wastes no time in answering, “I didn’t think so. If I was dependent on anything it was the bar. I couldn’t imagine life without it. I couldn’t conceive of ever leaving. Where would I go? And if I went, who would I be?” Who indeed.

A decade ago, Pete Hamill wrote a good book called “The Drinking Life” which dealt with the same subject matter (his father wasn’t there for him either; he just didn’t bother to leave home) but his take is quite different. With Mr. Moehringer you get the shank of the evening, but with Mr. Hamill it’s the morning after. Perhaps it’s meaningful that two books singled out for high praise in “The Tender Bar” are “A Fan’s Notes” by Frederick Exley and J. P. Donleavey’s “The Ginger Man.”

Those who know them will recall that each one featured a protagonist who, on any given day, wouldn’t have a prayer of passing a D.C. Police sobriety test. Let me put it this way: While I might give copies of this eminently readable book to my sons, I’d probably hold off until after the holiday season.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and author of “Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.”

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