If you want to find out how important a bar is to normal civic life, move to Los Angeles. There are bars here, sure, and not just ones serving wheatgrass juice—they’re clean, high-concept spaces, often appended to fancy hotels and filled with votive candles. There’s even a smattering of genuine dives that have been around for generations and are filled with smoky “atmosphere,” if not actual smoke. But you have to drive miles, possibly at high speed on freeways, to get to them, which sort of defeats the whole purpose.
In the vast majority of L.A. neighborhoods, you’ll never hear that sweet, sweet suggestion, “Hey, let’s get a drink … ” “O.K.!”, followed by an entire night lost under cover of spontaneity and a subway ride home among the jostling, sympathetic masses. Los Angeles debauchery must be carefully planned and managed. If people get drunk at all, it’s thanks to an insouciant little Pinot on the patio, in the company of invited intimates and under the heady scent of jasmine—not a bad experience, but just not the same.
I never thought I’d miss the dank, dark, sawdust-sprinkled saloons of New York, where so many hours of my 20’s were recklessly dispatched—but J.R. Moehringer has made me prematurely nostalgic. His warm and engrossing story is set not in Manhattan, but in Manhasset, Long Island. (Known for liquor and lacrosse, Manhasset was the inspiration for the town of East Egg in The Great Gatsby.) During his childhood, Mr. Moehringer reports, bars on Manhasset’s main drag of Plandome Road “were as numerous as stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame,” with only-in-the-East names like Brass Pony and the Gay Dome. His bar, the “tender bar” of the title, is dubbed Dickens (after Charles); it later became Publicans and expanded to the South Street Seaport, to the distress of the regulars.
The key bartender of this tale is also a Charles, a.k.a. “Chas” or “Goose”: Mr. Moehringer’s articulate if dissolute uncle, an inveterate gambler, a bit of a dandy and perhaps the most significant in a series of male role models toward which the author gradually gravitates in the glaring absence of his own father. Moehringer Sr. was a disc jockey and a total heel who took off when J.R. was an infant, after threatening his wife with a straight razor. Even so, J.R. longs to know “The Voice,” as he comes to think of dear old Dad, snatching any chance to listen to the latter’s plummy tones on secreted radios. (He worships Frank Sinatra, too.) Their few in-person father-son meetings prove crushing disappointments.
Living with cousins in his maternal Gramps’ ramshackle place, Moehringer fils (the name J.R., derived from “junior,” will become a huge issue with him) is reluctantly adopted by a ragtag assortment of barflies—characters like Colt, who has a voice like Yogi Bear, and the manic and mumbling “Joey D.” They’re men who love the Mets, poetry and a nice, bottomless stiff cocktail. They take the young ’un to ballgames and the beach and instruct him on how to fight with men, how to cope with women, and, of course, how to pound one or two or three highballs back in quick succession. The ensemble is Dickensian indeed: There’s a cook named Smelly and a semi-intelligible custodian known as “Fuckembabe,” after one of his few comprehensible catchphrases. All of these guys were “my Sherpas,” Mr. Moehringer lovingly attests—human compasses on a mountain of life that, under the twin clouds of poverty and a broken home, seems totally insurmountable.
J.R. demonstrates an uncanny knack for stumbling on helpful male mentors; after his mother carts him off to Arizona in search of a better life, he works in a mall bookstore under the supervision of an odd, fey couple called Bill and Bud, who turn him on to Cheever and Mozart and encourage him to apply, successfully, to Yale—his golden ticket into the more Gatsbyesque existence he clandestinely craves (at one point, he’ll contemplate changing his name to Charles Mallard).
In the drinking car of a commuter train one semester, he meets a priest who quotes Dante and Longfellow and tells him, “Make yourself happy. That’s the way to make Mother happy.” Later, he nabs a copyboy job at The New York Times, fetching corned-beef sandwiches for men in “cap-toed shoes as big and seamlessly constructed as canoes.”
But that bar keeps sucking him back with a constant flow of new father surrogates: Bob the Cop; Cager, the Vietnam vet; Dalton, a lawyer who happens to like Rilke. It’s like a marathon run of Cheers.
To Mr. Moehringer’s credit, the women in his life of booze aren’t doomed to walk-on roles, though they do have a tendency to hover rather angelically over the narrative: J.R.’s mother is a long-suffering martyr who bravely devises all kinds of fictions to mitigate their bleak circumstances. (Rather than take away his security blankie, she snips at it until it’s a sliver. Could Dr. Freud help out with that one?) His cousin Sheryl “looks like a young Ingrid Bergman” and introduces him to shots and cigarettes. A leggy babe named Lana takes our hero’s virginity atop a mountain and then disappears altogether, as feminine despoilers have a way of doing, like magical phantasms. And at Yale, he meets a privileged, toothsome babe from Connecticut named Sidney—for a while, it’s Love Story with the genders reversed—but she winds up torturing him, and us, for the entire second half of the book.
The thing about most drinking memoirs is that it’s too predictable how it’s all going to end: The author is going to sober up (how else will he achieve the requisite critical distance?) and indulge in a different kind of haze: 12-step introspection. But this is really less a drinking memoir than a sociological study—tart and uncloying like a good gin fizz, a generous pouring-forth of details and dialogue about social classes and the institutions that (sometimes quite literally) prop them up. It’s also a primer in reporting—a skill the young Mr. Moehringer didn’t quite master, according to The Times. I bet they’d like to have him back now: The Tender Bar is quite simply … wünderbar!
Alexandra Jacobs is features editor of The Observer.