Summary and book reviews of The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

The Tender Bar

by J.R. Moehringer

The Tender Bar
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 370 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2006, 432 pages

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Book Summary

In the grand tradition of landmark memoirs - a classic American story of self-invention and escape, of the fierce love between a single mother and an only son, it's also a moving portrait of one boy's struggle to become a man, and an unforgettable depiction of how men remain, at heart, lost boys.

J.R. Moehringer grew up captivated by a voice. It was the voice of his father, a New York City disc jockey who vanished before J.R. spoke his first word. Sitting on the stoop, pressing an ear to the radio, J.R. would strain to hear in that plummy baritone the secrets of masculinity and identity. Though J.R.'s mother was his world, his rock, he craved something more, something faintly and hauntingly audible only in The Voice.

At eight years old, suddenly unable to find The Voice on the radio, J.R. turned in desperation to the bar on the corner, where he found a rousing chorus of new voices. Cops and poets, bookies and soldiers, movie stars and stumblebums, all sorts of men gathered in the bar to tell their stories and forget their cares. The alphas along the bar—including J.R.'s Uncle Charlie, a Humphrey Bogart look-alike; Colt, a Yogi Bear sound-alike; and Joey D, a softhearted brawler—took J.R. to the beach, to ballgames, and ultimately into their circle. They taught J.R., tended him, and provided a kind of fatherhood-by-committee.

Torn between the stirring example of his mother and the lurid romance of the bar, J.R. tried to forge a self somewhere in the center. But when it was time for J.R. to leave home, the bar became an increasingly seductive sanctuary, a place to return and regroup during his picaresque journeys—from his grandfather's tumbledown house to the hallowed towers and spires of Yale; from his absurd stint selling housewares at Lord & Taylor to his dream job at the New York Times, which became a nightmare when he found himself a faulty cog in a vast machine. Time and again the bar offered shelter from failure, rejection, heartbreak--and eventually from reality.

In the grand tradition of landmark memoirs, The Tender Bar is suspenseful, wrenching, and achingly funny. A classic American story of self-invention and escape, of the fierce love between a single mother and an only son, it's also a moving portrait of one boy's struggle to become a man, and an unforgettable depiction of how men remain, at heart, lost boys.

Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides

-Dylan Thomas, "Light breaks where no sun shines"

Prologue  
ONE OF MANY

We went there for everything we needed. we went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.

My personal list of needs was long. An only child, abandoned by my father, I needed a family, a home, and men. Especially men. I needed men as mentors, heroes, role models, and as a kind of masculine counterweight to...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In the memoir, JR has a difficult childhood and family circumstances in many respects, but there are also many positive elements to his childhood, including a loving mother and grandmother. Compare Moehringer's portrait of childhood to other memoirs you've read.

  2. There are various portrayals of "good" and "bad" men in the memoir. What are the different definitions of goodness in men?

  3. Alcohol permeates the memoir. In what ways is it both a positive and a negative factor in the lives of the various characters?

  4. JR's mother is deeply conflicted about her living circumstances. Do you think her experiences are representative of the struggles of many single mothers? Do you ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Newsweek

The genuine tension in the story lies in the distance between who young J.R. Moehringer was and who he wanted to be. As the distance shrinks, you'll want to cheer. But the cheer will die in your throat after you realize that once the gap has narrowed all the way, the story will be over. The only thing wrong with this terrific debut is that there has to be a closing time.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

..... the real richness of The Tender Bar lies in its including so many of these individual events while still keeping a larger literary context in mind. After all, the bar was called Dickens. The patrons loved talking about writers. And Manhasset was "Great Gatsby" territory. One of the book's funnier moments comes when two of Mr. Moehringer's many mentors realize, in horror, that the Kid has never read it.

Vanity Fair

In his gimlet-eyed memoir, The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer lovingly and affectingly toasts a boyhood spent on a barstool.

Entertainment Weekly

The best thing about The Tender Bar is that it is many stories in one. Moehringer has hours and hours of stories that any bar hound worth his stool would bend both ears to drink in. Thankfully, the writer has opted to put them down on paper.

Publishers Weekly

Signature Review. The Tender Bar is the story of a young man who knows his father only as "The Voice," of a single mother struggling to make a better life for her son, and of a riotously dysfunctional family from Long Island. But more than anything else, Moehringer's book is a homage to the culture of the local pub. That's where young J.R. seeks out the companionship of male role models in place of his absent father, where he receives an education that has served him well in his career and where, inevitably, he looks for love, bemoans its absence, and mourns its loss.

Booklist - Keir Graff

Starred Review. Funny, honest, and insightful, The Tender Bar finds universal themes in an unusual upbringing and declares a real love of barroom life without romanticizing it too much.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A straight-up account of masculinity, maturity and memory that leaves a smile on the face and an ache in the heart.

Author Blurb David Halberstam
A memoir about coming of age in, of all unlikely places, a great American bar. Blessedly, Moehringer's story is both joyous and triumphant.

Author Blurb Richard Russo
You'd have to go back a ways, maybe all the way to Joseph Mitchell, to find a writer who understands bar life as well as J.R. Moehringer.   The Tender Bar will make you thirsty for that life--its camaraderie, its hilarity, its seductive, dangerous wisdom.

Author Blurb James Salter
Simply a wonderful book about a heaven of a life that had everything going against it except intense love worth more than all the money in the world.   Everyone in it is incredibly alive, everyone shines, and every vice is transformed into something glorious.   If only whiskey, the heady aroma of which floats from certain pages, gave as much pure happiness as reading this book does.

Author Blurb Anne Taylor Fleming
With a newspaperman's eye for detail and a novelist's gift for narrative, J.R. Moehringer has spun a magical memoir. The Tender Bar is touching, raucous, and irresistible.

Reader Reviews

Mark Sheehan

Manhasset Daze!
JR "nailed it" with this insight into one of the most unique places on the planet. Plandome Road, and Manhasset have long been sacred grounds for the lucky few kids who got to grow up skipping the cracks in the main street concrete. What ...   Read More

Sam Cario

"Measure for Measure" a masterful memoir
JR's characterizations were exceptional, you wanted to meet everyone of his bar persons.I was nostalgic when he wrote of Gilgo...the good old days. But what touched me most was the love he showed for his mother, this was truly the glue of his memoir...   Read More

Maya Brandon

A Great Read
Through Moehringer's honest portrayal of Manhasset, it becomes difficult to put the book down. A beautiful telling of the struggles Moehringer overcomes and those who shaped him. By the time you finish reading The Tender Bar, you'll feel nostalgic ...   Read More

Maya Brandon

An Excellent Read
Through Moehringer's honest portrayal of Manhasset, it becomes difficult to put the book down. A beautiful telling of the struggles Moehringer overcomes and those who shaped him. By the time you finish reading The Tender Bar, you'll feel nostalgic ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

J.R. Moehringer (pronounced Morier), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Niemann Fellow at Harvard University. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

Almost 50 Manhasset residents were killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. One was a Dickens bartender, another was a cousin of  Moehringer.  As the reviewer for Publishers Weekly so aptly put it, "Moehringer's ...

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Readalikes

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    Imagine that Alice had walked into a bar instead of falling down the rabbit hole. In the tradition of J. R. Moehringer's The Tender Bar and the classic reportage of Joseph Mitchell, here is an indelible portrait of what is quite possibly the greatest bar in the world—and the mercurial, magnificent man behind it.

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    From PEN/Hemingway award winner Brando Skyhorse comes this stunning, heartfelt memoir in the vein of The Glass Castle or The Tender Bar, the true story of a boy's turbulent childhood growing up with five stepfathers and the mother who was determined to give her son everything but the truth.

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