Part memoir, part homage to the intimate, unforgettable community of a neighborhood watering hole, journalist J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar (Hyperion, 432 pp., $14.95) recounts a life whose most landmark moments are remembered from a bar stool. With humor that recalls Bill Bryson and a message that eventually veers in the direction of Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, it’s easy to see why Moehringer was a 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing at the Los Angeles Times.
Through craftsmanship that has the reader roaring one minute and getting all salty-faced the next, this is ultimately the story of underdogs, told amid the backdrop of a common gathering spot for both disappointment and remarkable triumph. You aren’t rooting for just Moehringer—whose no-good, alcoholic father abandoned him when he was a baby, just after trying to kill his mom—but also for his struggling mother, whose sacrifices are legion. And then there are Moehringer’s central characters, the men of Publicans bar, the guys who raised him: Uncle Charlie, Wheelchair Eddie, Fuckembabe, Smelly, Colt, Joey D. Despite innumerable obstacles and marks against him—including poverty, devastating heartbreak and responsibilities that are both more numerous and daunting than any teenage boy should have to bear—Moehringer is ultimately accepted to Yale. With no money and no prestige at a campus full of overprivileged prep school peers who have taken on half his workload, Moehringer frequently returns to Publicans to forget his troubles. “We exalt what is at hand,” he writes in his prologue. “Had I grown up beside a river or an ocean, some natural avenue of self-discovery and escape, I might have mythologized it. Instead I grew up 142 steps from a glorious old American tavern, and that has made all the difference.”
Gambling and rampant alcoholism don’t make people less interesting, it turns out, but sometimes more so, especially when bettors and ne’er-do-wells can talk foreign policy and F. Scott Fitzgerald as fluently as they can the race track. A tryout at The New York Times, Moehringer’s first lay, romantic anguish and a journalistic error that every rookie fears are all toasted or mourned from the same bar. To say that this book has something for everyone would be cliché. It would also happen to be true. Moehringer signs books on Aug. 2 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 6 p.m.