When I decided to review this book I thought I was lending a helping hand to an unknown author. As it turns out J.R. Moehringer is quite successful in his writing career. So the review will be appropriately short.
Early today a friend in Los Angeles emailed me about this book. She had it on CD and had been listening to it on her trips to work and to Big Bear on the weekend. She was enthused about it partly because she said it reminded her of the stories I used to tell her about the neighborhood where I grew up in Philadelphia. Reading it I could understand why.
The story is ostensibly about a bar and bars were a major part of my early development. However, this book is about much more than a bar and its habitue's. The author, J.R. Moehringer, does paint vivid scenes of Dickens, named for Charles of Oliver Twist, etc., the tap room at the center of the Tender Bar story. Those who frequented Dickens and some who seemed to live there appear before us alive and robust in Moerhringer's memoir. Moehringer himself takes center stage, first as a lonely child whose father has abandoned his mother and him, then as a man who has done suprisingly well. The child is strangely appealing, good humored, curious, missing the male presence in his life. The man is a model of achieving against severe odds.
His father is a popular New York disc jockey and throughout the boy's childhood he can hear the man's voice on the radio. This saddens his mother but she doesn't interfere. Sadder is the fact that this is the boy's -- and over time the man's -- only contact with the indifferent father. So the men at Dickens become the male substitute and there seems to be a genuine caring and a sort of love involved between them and the bereft Moehringer. It is, to me, astonishing that this proves to be a healthy element in Moehringer's mental growth. The bonds formed last into his middle years and when death and tragedy come to members of the group they come together to commiserate and mourn. The infamous World Trade Center destruction affects all of them directly. Many of the dead and injured were friends and relatives of the Dickens patrons.
Near the beginning of The Tender Bar Moehringer, in a car with his mother, sees the neighborhood men playing softball. They're all laughing. He asks his mother why they're laughing. She says, "because they're happy." He asks what they're so happy about. His mother, after some thought, says, "beer, Sweetheart, they're happy because of beer."
In a story about a bar I expected some eventual alcohol related misery. There seems to have been little of that. But there is one place where an old-timer tells Moehringer, "drinking is the one thing that you don't get better at the longer you do it."
I'm deliberately avoiding spoilers here and as I said at the outset Moehringer doesn't need any help from me. He's just a writer I surprisingly missed. But if you haven't read The Tender Bar it has nearly 400 reviews on Amazon, all those that I've seen being positive. It's also heavily marked down which led me to think it had failed but far from that the book and its author have done quite well.
It is about much more than the drinking life, but I don't want to give any more away.