The Tender Bar? Simple: Its title. Yes, I get the turn-of-phrase, and even the possible double-meaning of "tender." And yes, it's sort of clever (in a not-really-clever sort of way). But it's just so preciously cutesy. I always rolled my eyes when I saw it in a used bookstore, and never even considered picking it up — even though I know millions of readers have loved it.
With the publication of Moehringer's first novel last fall — titled Sutton, about a bank robber, and a book I'm chomping at the bit to get to — I decided to finally grow up a bit, conquer my silly hang-up, and read. (Besides, I LOVED Moehringer's work on Andre Agassi's autobiography Open, as much for the story — and I'm a huge tennis fan — as the writing.)
I'm glad I did — The Tender Bar is a fantastic read. It's funny. It's touching. And, yes, gosh darn it, it's tender. But you know this, already.
And most of you probably know the story, too. But if not, here's the deal: It's the mid-1970s, and Moehringer is growing up without his father, living in a house with more people than a house rightfully should hold, on Long Island. He idolizes his Uncle Charlie and Charlie's buddies, who spend their days hungover and their nights creating the next day's hangover at the bar down the street — for better or worse, they're the male influences in his life. Charlie's awesome — he's a booze hound gambler, but he loves words. Charlie's grandfather is less awesome — he's mean to his wife, and is a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but he also loves words. And so J.R. learns to love words, too.
Then the story shifts to a coming-of-age-type thing — Moehringer and his mother move to Arizona, where he meets a couple of oddball bookstore owners, who show him how to read deeply. He gets in to Yale, but feels like he doesn't belong. Still, he meets Sidney — a rich girl, who he loves desperately, but who breaks his heart (when she cheats on him), but then loves again, but then decides to ditch (a decision made at the bar, incidentally) for his own mental health. He starts his career at the NY Times, and continues to visit the bar night nightly, soaking up the barroom wisdom.
Throughout it all, J.R. struggles with his identity — does he want to be known as a person raised in a bar, and now spends his adult free time in a bar? How is bar wisdom and etiquette applicable to the real world? How does he separate himself from his father, who has constantly left his hard-working mother in the lurch? And will his own inherited love of words pay off?
There are few parts of the story that sort of smack of revisionist history — you know, events Moehringer claims to recognize as turning points at the time they were happening, which is convenient for the story. Maybe that game of catch he had with his younger cousin (e.g.) really was a pivot for his life, but in reality, we rarely do understand moments like that at time they're happening. Then again, most memoirs are at least a tad revisionist, aren't they? But overall, it's a great story, told in prose so smooth and clean, it practically slides off the page. I give it four stars and highly recommend it, if you're one of the few who hasn't yet picked it up.