The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer

I heard J. R. Moehringer interviewed on WNYC in September, talking about his childhood, growing up without a father and passing time in the bar down the road (in Manhasset, Long Island) where his uncle worked. Upon graduating from Yale, he got a job in the giftware section of Lord & Taylor and began making a killing on commissions: a depressing kind of success. Had he and his single mother fought and worked and dreamed for all those years of an Ivy League education in order for him to sell crystal and fine linens to the ladies of Long Island?

Although it is not a topic of inherent interest to me, something about his voice was tremendously appealing. So much so, that I noted the title and topic. A few weeks later, the book arrived in the mail from my father. He had read it, loved it, and, as he occasionally does, hopped onto amazon & ordered it for me. The next week, my mother-in-law asked me if I’d read The Tender Bar yet.

Last month, I did. It really is a wonderful book. There are some hilarious passages of him working on his college entrance essay:
’Try as I might,’ I wrote, addressing the Admissions Committee directly, ‘I feel unable to truly convey the emphatic pangs of hungry ignorance that attend this my seventeenth year, for I fear that my audience is well fed!’
As my fingers flew across the keys of the secondhand typewriter my mother had bought me, I could hear the Dean of Admissions summoning everyone into his office. ‘I think we’ve got something here,’ he’d say, before reading a few choice passages aloud.
My mother, however, after reading my essay, chose three small words to express her opinion. ‘You sound—insane.’
He is ruthless about his own style throughout. In one scene, he brings his early attempts at fiction to the bar: “Why is the bar like a fart in the badlands?” Cager asks, forcing J.R. to admit the typo: “Should say ‘fort.’ Fort in the badlands.” “I think I like it this way. Fart in the badlands. Think about it.” He is also honest about the hard work he put in learning to write—the reading lists, the lists of words to use and avoid, the reading, the striving to seem smart and then to be so. I know I liked this book because I recognize his faults--that embarrassing combination of pretense and typos--as my own.

Another part of what makes the book such a pleasure is the pleasure Moehringer takes in finding smart people wherever he goes. He loves anyone who loves words, who is a good storyteller, from publicans and alcoholics to deejays and bookstore clerks to professors and journalists. Getting a wordy-gurdy clue right as a young boy is the first moment he turns from being just a squirt into J.R., the kid who hangs out at the bar. Everywhere he looks, he seems to turn up readers: in the bar of the title, the men argue about Melville; in the strip mall bookstore where he works, the reclusive autodidacts who run the chain tease him for referring to Scarlett’s Letter and then take him in hand, schooling him in the difference between Hawthorne and Scarlett O’Hara.

My usual stops in the litblogosphere don’t seem to have had much to say about this book yet, but there’s still plenty online. Frances Dinkenspiel praises his writing (quoting a nice representative bit—an unpretentious, funny, and apt description) and his ability to make friends in odd places. Tina Ristau singles out Moehringer’s relationship with his mother, whom he adores and longs to protect, as a strength. Gale Zasada offers a nice summary of the book, for which she has high praise.