A review of “The Tender Bar”

This book has become one of those memoirs that everybody recommends you read, like The Liars Club. It certainly has things in common with Mary Karr’s classic. Kid grows up in a nowhere family shadowed by liquor. Kid grows up to be a writer. This memoir, however, has a lot more dialogue in it, in fact, it’s driven by dialogue, which certainly makes it more readable and vivid than Karr’s dense and even poetic account.

The Tender Bar is really about nothing else except growing up, which is fine. There’s no central event, like a murder or the discovery of a secret family. It’s just about a son of a single mother growing up. Moehringer’s family makes for an eclectic cast of characters. His mother has all the best intentions but no money because of a deadbeat Dad. His uncle was born with no hair or even eyebrows and is a bookie at the local bar, and ushers him into the world of liquor and alcoholics. His grandfather is a man who lives in a decrepit old house and does everything he can to alienate everyone around him.

What makes this book special is that everything is vivid. The prose is pretty good, although not always. Sometimes his sentences read like a first draft that should have been gone over a few times.  But obviously, he knows something about writing, having won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.  At one point, Moehringer writes that “words even helped me organize my parents. My mother was the printed word–tangible, present, real–while my father was the spoken word–invisible, ephemeral, instantly part of memory.” And it is the passages about his father and his longing thereof that form the core of this book.

“My father was an improbable combination of magnetic and repellent qualities. Charismatic, mercurial, sophisticated, suicidal, hilarious, short-tempered–and dangerous from the start. He got into a fistfight at their wedding. Drunk, my father shoved my mother, and when his best man objected to such treatment of the bride, my father decked him. Several guests jumped my father, trying to restrain him, and when the cops arrived they found my father running up and down the sidewalk, assaulting passersby.”

His description of Grandpa was equally illuminating: “Grandpa had a photographic memory, an astounding vocabulary, a firm command of Greek and Latin, but his family wasn’t able to enjoy his intellectual gifts because he never engaged us in actual conversations. He kept us at bay with a ceaseless patter of TV jingles, advertising slogans and non sequiturs. We’d tell him about our day and he’d shout, ‘It’s a free country!’ We’d ask him to pass the beans and he’d say, ‘Tastes good like a cigarette should….’ His private language was a fence he put around himself….”  God, do I know about that particular type of fence.

Fortunately, there is a way out for this narrator. He does so well in school that he is admitted to Yale, and that’s wherefrom hope springs. He doesn’t feel adequate to the task, and neither does his family’s bank account, but he dukes it out.  It made me think about my own struggles at UCLA, where I lamented my inability to read quickly, and marveled at those Wunderkinden who could apprend immediately, as if they were spongi.

I believe that it’s best to begin reviewing a book when you’re about two-thirds into it, and that’s what I’ve done with this review.  I will update it as I finish the book.

 

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