Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Tender Bar: Bad Title, Great Book

Do you know why I'm one of the last dozen or so people on Earth who hasn't read J.R. Moehringer delightful memoir, 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.


  1. The title made me a bit nuts too. I wanted it to be called The Bartender. Or something? But other than that it was a great read.

  2. Where have I been? I don't remember even hearing about this. But, thanks to you, it's on my list now.

  3. Well I'm one of the dozen or so left on Earth who hasnt read it so thanks for your good review. But I did read the Agassi book "Open" (being a huge tennis fan too) and found it quite eye-opening. He hates tennis, took drugs and wore a wig during matches. Sort of sad to hear of his unhappiness. but he got Steffi so that's something. cheers.

  4. I've seen this book, but just assumed that The Tender Bar was something I didn't know about, not that it was tender, like the feeling!

  5. you've made me want to read the popular book I've heard of a million times but not really turned on to. Thanks. | Psychologist NJ

  6. This is one of those books one needs to own, for the underlining of critical passages and literary references to review again later. Be prepared to get intimate with the tough, ruddy-faced bartenders and barkeeps of Publicans (especially Uncle Charlie, who I have known in another body in my own life), and to put Steve's bar on the list of places to visit before you die.

  7. What's hilarious is that I read the book without EVER realizing that the title was a play on the word Bartender!! Duh!!

    1. I cannot believe I'm admitting this-- I have PhD in English and fancy myself quite "word smart," but I *still* didn't get it until you just spelled it out. (I haven't read it, yet, but i guess I was hung up on the lovely notion tenderness!

  8. I recently finished reading "The Tender Bar," and I couldn't agree more with your assessment—Bad Title, Great Book indeed! The title may not do justice to the depth and richness of the story within. The narrative takes you on a poignant journey, exploring themes of identity, belonging, and the pursuit of one's dreams. The characters are so well-developed that you feel a genuine connection to their triumphs and struggles. It's a testament to J.R. Moehringer's storytelling prowess. Despite the initial misgivings about the title, the book captivates you from start to finish. Highly recommend to anyone looking for a compelling and heartfelt read!