The Tender Bar
by J.R. Moehringer
Appearing at Powell's City of Books
Wed Nov 30, 7:30 pm, free
Generally, if booze features prominently in a memoir, it's in relation to debilitating alcoholism, domestic violence, or some other unglamorous repository of childhood trauma. In his recent autobiography, journalist J.R. Moehringer offers a different take on the bottle. Though The Tender Bar is, in a roundabout way, the story of one man's journey toward a serious drinking problem, Moehringer tells his life story with neither judgment nor regret. Rather, he lovingly and nostalgically chronicles a lifelong infatuation with his beloved neighborhood bar.
The young Moehringer grew up just blocks away from a venerable drinking establishment known as Publicans, described as the best bar in one of the hardest-drinking towns in the country (Manhasset, New York, a town fictionalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby). Moehringer's relationship with Publicans began at an early age. Raised by his mother, he turned to the bar in search of male role models. From his hairless, compulsive-gambler uncle, to the bar's patrician owner, to an assortment of friends with unlikely names, the bar and its denizens form an invaluable support system for the young Moehringer. As he struggles through the standard assortment of coming of age challenges (sex, college, heartbreak, unemployment), he returns to Publicans to celebrate or mourn each milestone. The bar even helped teach him how to write. As a young man, he planned to write a novel about Publicans, and he describes how he took to bringing his rough drafts into the bar to ask for editing help, observing that "words and plots had to be sharp enough, simple enough to penetrate the penumbra of whatever they were drinking."
Though The Tender Bar is certainly not the novel of high jinks and hilarity that Moehringer envisioned, the clarity gained in these barroom editing sessions persists. His description of Publicans is infused with a nostalgic attachment to place, a genuine love for the men and women he met there, and a charmingly sincere belief that bars are the great American social equalizers, and that his bar was the greatest of them all.