- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

Decades ago, when I was a mere stripling of a book reviewer, I read and raved about a wonderful book that was also about life in and around a bar. Forgive me for not remembering the author or the title — it was literally hundreds of reviews ago — and allow me to recall that it was a novel about a man and his passion, which was not drinking but music.

While his bar wasn’t grand, its setting was: On the water’s edge of a middle-class marina (i.e., no yachts need apply) in a low, one-story building with lots of big windows facing the water. The hours of operation were whenever the owner felt like it: If he looked out and saw a not-so-favored customer coming up the walk, he beat him or her to the door, reversed the OPEN sign, and locked the premises. And then he cranked up the sound system, poured himself a good belt, and settled back to listen to opera, full blast. Ah, heaven.

Most of us, except for the Reformed and the Truly Saved, have or have had a favorite down-home kind of bar. I remember most fondly one just outside of D.C. that will remain nameless as it is now gentrified, and where, one hot day, my good friend, who will also remain nameless, knocked off two beers in such quick succession that the waitress, a 6-foot biker babe with tattoos before they were chic, while setting down his third, looked at him with a combination of love and lust and said, “[Expletive deleted]. You drink beer faster than I do.”

And then there was my 92-year-old Aunt Gert who, after the first sip of her PBR, gazed around the confines of the late and lamented Five & Dime Tap in Milwaukee, and, not realizing her voice would carry, said, “I just love this joint.”

“Later, At the Bar,” Rebecca Barry’s first novel (“in stories”), has some of that same serendipitous feel to it, not as much as I’d hope for, but some, and for that I’m grateful. I think you will be too.

Lucy’s Tavern, your basic small-town bar in your basic rough-weather country, is populated by your basic tough-luck customer. But these regulars are not tough in a let’s-get-drunk-and-hurt-somebody way, but tough in a look-at-this-fine-mess-I got-myself-in-now kind of way. The men lose their women, the women lose their men, and they all drink more than they should — some drink way more than they should — yet they soldier on, through the valleys of divorce and unemployment and brief periods of incarceration or incapacitation, or both.

They are, as one jacket blurber so accurately put it, people “bushwhacked by want.” But they are also, above and beyond and despite, almost always there for one another, and, collectively, they create the kind of camaraderie for which a good bar is famous. For the most part, Barry’s people play the hands they are dealt, often unwisely, just to stay in the game.

Take, for example, Lucy, who owned the joint in question until the day of the big snowstorm with which the novel’s first story, “Lucy’s Last Hurrah,” begins. When the howling of the wind reminds her of “the hundred acres of woodland where she grew up in Alaska,” Lucy goes outside at 7:30 at night, shoeless and clad only in a nightgown, and sits down on a snowbank.

“It was Harlin Wilder, delivering Meals on Wheels as part of his community service, who found Lucy in her front yard in her nightgown, stiff and blue and dead, her face tilted upward, her hands tucked neatly beneath her thighs, as if she were waiting for something wonderful to happen.” As you can see, we’re not talking Eugene O’Neil here.

In the next story, “Men Shoot Things to Kill Them,” we learn more about Harlin. You only have to read the first sentence — “Three months after his divorce from his first wife became final, Harlin Wilder’s new wife Grace left town with another man.” — to see that Harlin is probably not going to come out on top.

But wait, it isn’t what you think, at least not yet, because the author then tells us, “Her reasons were solid enough. She was going to bowl in a tournament in Chemung County, and Jimmy Slocum, who was heading up there with a truckload of salt, had offered her a ride.” But Harlin doesn’t trust Jimmy, who has oily curls and flinty eyes and rolls up his shirtsleeves to show off his biceps. Clearly, no good can come from a scenario like that, and little, if any, does.

There are eight more “stories,” or chapters, that go to make up the novel, and each one features one or more of Lucy’s regulars. In “Newspaper Clipping,” we learn about the time Harlin and Cyrus, his “older brother by 15 minutes,” got arrested “for stealing a seven dollar box of chicken wings from a delivery girl.”

In “Not Much is New Here,” we learn more about Linda Hartley, an advice columnist who gets paid to tell others how to find happiness even though she can’t find it herself. It ends on a very minor note of hope. But “Love Him, Petaluma,” in which Linda attempts to organize an Easter Parade, some type of bonnet required, concludes with what passes for seasonal rebirth among the regulars of Lucy’s Tavern.

The very last story, which is sadder than the rest, begins with this news:

“It was his liver, hardened by five thousand gallons of eighty-proof gin, that finally killed Harlin Wilder.” The news is delivered to his former wife, Grace, by a lawyer who can’t help but make a pass at Grace before he leaves. Grace thinks that it has become rare that anyone “looked at her the way Lanford was looking at her now, like she was a single, ripe piece of fruit.”

She declines, but: “‘You’re sweet to try, Lanford Guthrie,’ she said.

“‘Nothing sweet about it,’ he said and left.”

In the end, Grace relents. When she gets back from Harlin’s funeral, she calls Guthrie and invites him over. The last line is Grace’s, and it befits a true regular of Lucy’s Tavern. “‘Say what you will about drunks,’ she said out loud to the dark room around her, ‘but no one will love you like they can’.”

Although this is Rebecca Barry’s first novel, she’s an accomplished writer, her nonfiction having appeared in the magazine sections of both the New York Times and The Washington Post, among other places, and her fiction in several well-known small magazines. I hope she keeps writing novels, because she has a wonderful voice, but I also hope she finds a new cast of characters.

This bunch, with its off-beat occupations and names that sound more like the South than upstate New York, more Jeff Foxworthy than Frederick Exley, begins to get less and less interesting as you read more about them. Early on, I got the distinct feeling that she was making fun of her characters, a feeling I get from the work of too many younger writers these days, and by the end of “Later, At the Bar” the feeling was still with me. But the fact remains, Ms. Barry can write. Keep an eye out for her.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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