Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Tender Bar made me want to drink

I had a dad growing up, and I am glad I did.

J.R. Moehringer, however, makes a compelling case for a life without a father in his memoir The Tender Bar. For all the trouble his absent father caused him and his mother, Moehringer’s life brims with envious events – summers days at the beach, Mets games, a job in a bookshop, Yale, The New York Times and early entry into an eccentric group of drinkers at the local bar. Without a man in his life, Moehringer found replacements slumped on stools, behind the bar or in a glass of scotch.

Moehringer whines his was through childhood and early adulthood, nearly pissing away every opportunity given him. He complains about the offer from his mother to spend summers away from her in Manhasset, New York. When offered a job in a bookstore with two quirky worms, he worries they will not like him. Convinced fate has decided he won’t get into Yale, he almost doesn’t apply. At The New York Times, he sputters, offering moments of genius but mostly hunkers in a hangover. He cannot make a decision without the “woe is me” treatment.

His Aunt Ruth nails it. After Moehringer and his cousin, McGraw, a top-prospect pitcher at the University of Nebraska, conspire to fade into obscurity together, she accuses the two of coming from the same lot as the rest of the men in the family’s single-parent history.

“She screamed that McGraw and I were cowards, the most despicable kind of cowards, because we didn’t fear failure, but success,” Moehringer writes.

And the one thing that is working out for him in his life, the bar and all those in it, he analyzes it to death, trying to fit the bar into explanations of life, suffering and achievement. He grinds the gin mill so hard, trying to crack a meaning to life out of it, that he misses life coming in and out every night.

I suspect the high drama of the inner conflict in Moehringer’s life results from a case of heightened emotional memory. It is easy to look back at formative events with an amplified sense of meaning. In Moehringer’s constant search for the token metaphor, the smallest action becomes a pivot of change. The decision to have that second drink means he’s given up on Sidney and the chance of ever finding love.

Driving the recount of his early days are the men of the bar and their interactions with Moehringer’s life. After each episode, a devastating week at Yale, an unforgivable blunder at The New York Times, a bad date, a failed escape from Manhasset to New York City, the folks at Publicans are there to offer a drink, good-hearted jabs – and what Moehringer needs the most – advice and encouragement. Through these conversations, the personalities of Uncle Charlie, Joey D, Bob the Cop, Colt, Dalton and Steve emerge.

Moehringer captures each character through barroom banter. They are built with same blueprints, a telling nickname, drink, history, but Moehringer picks up on the anomalies that set the cast apart and hold them together. His skills as a reporter shine, seducing each character into conversation and revelation. He endears the men to readers where you worry when Joey D gets too drunk, understand why Smelly attacked Moehringer one night, hurt for Bob the Cop when he reveals his past and well up and belly up to the bar when Steve dies.

Honest and transparent, Moehringer understands the men at the bar. I am not convinced, however, that Moehringer understands himself. It’s a reporter’s curse; apt to tell stories, struggles to tell his own.


(I've never tried this. We don't have Sweet Vermouth at the Aupperlee compound right now.)

The Manhasset

Manhasset Mixed Drink -- powered by

1 ½ oz. Blended Whiskey

1 ½ Teaspoons Sweet Vermouth

1 ½ Teaspoons Dry Vermouth

1 Teaspoon of lemon juice

(It’s a little drink. I’d double it.)


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