A boy raised, with affection, in the local saloon

September 25, 2005|By Donna Rifkind

Review: Memoir


J.R. Moehringer

Hyperion / 370 pages

"TO BE A MAN, A BOY MUST SEE A man." The sentence shows up casually, in the middle of a paragraph, but it may as well be the refrain of J.R. Moehringer's soulful memoir, The Tender Bar. Life was rocky from the start: His father disappeared after cornering Moehringer's mother in the bathroom wi t h a straight razor when his son was 7 months old, and he was ever after a vaporous presence in Moehringer's life. Early on, Moehringer began searching for men in whose image he might make himself. The collage of identity he worked to create may be the boldest act of imagination that Moehringer, a literature-besotted, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Los Angeles Times, has yet attempted.

His quest for father figures began in the neighborhood bar. Though perhaps not the ideal baby-sitting venue for a boy growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, it was far from the worst. At that time, Manhasset, N.Y., was known for two things, lacrosse and liquor (although some also recognized it as the model for East Egg, F. Scott Fitzgerald's gin-soaked setting for The Great Gatsby). The town's most popular saloon, Dickens, was situated near a score of other bars on Plandome Road, "every drinker's street of dreams," precisely 142 steps from the housewhere he lived.

That house, owned by his grandfather, was where he and his mother had reluctantly moved after his father left - and it was a place from which she was perpetually trying to flee. Filled to bursting withMoehringer's family-his aunt and her six children, his bachelor uncle and his warring grandparents - the dilapidated rooms throbbed with "a roundthe- clock din of cursing and crying and fighting," an atmosphere so fretful that "by dusk you'd be barking and twitching more than the dog, who ran off every chance she got."

Desperate for distraction, he would sit on the front stoop with the family's olivegreen portable radio, obsessively twisting the dial until he found the "plummy baritone" of his father, who was a popular rock 'n' roll disc jockey in Manhattan. After locating "The Voice," he'd confide all his worries to the radio, trying to time the silences so it seemed as if he were having a conversation.

For real conversations, though, the only place was Dickens. Here, as early as age 10, Moehringer began soaking up the sociology of the bar with the help of his Bogart- imitating Uncle Charlie, a cook named Smelly and a merry band of "meat-and-potatoes palookas" named Joey D, Bobo and Colt. A readerwould be misguided to expect anything from Moehringer but the most romantic view of this place and these men. To him, Dickens was as gratifying as Disneyland and the circus and his birthday. For the anxious boy, basking in the amber light and the teasing attention of a congregation of reliable men, the glass at Dickens would always be half full.

Like many budding writers (including Fitzgerald, who haunts the book), Moehringer was an indifferent student at school, yet he's careful to show how diligently he absorbed the lessons that mattered to him. These came froma tattered copy of Kipling's The Jungle Book that he found in his grandparents' basement and that sparked a dedication to literature, as much as from the Dickens r e g u l a r s , wh o taught him about everything fromseven- card stud to Rilke. For its "paradigm of maleness," he studied Sinatra's voice - always within reach in a stack of albums, unlike "The Voice" of his father - and scrawled notes and insights to himself on hundreds of cocktail napkins.

Even as he began to venture out of Manhasset - to Arizona, where he and hismothermoved in a last-ditch effort at independence, and eventually to Yale, where he won a scholarship - Dickens was always his classroom of choice, and he could hardlywait to return.

As Moehringer evolved, so did the bar. It suffered financial setbacks, and after the premature death of its owner, "our Gatsby," it changed hands. Meanwhile, Moehringer was busy having his heart broken over a merciless Yale student, then finding employment as a New York Times copy boy and, ultimately, as a full-fledged reporter in Denver. He endured plenty of his own setbacks, which led him to realize that his idols at the bar were experts, above all, at losing: "Though proud of me when I succeeded," he admits, "the men celebrated me when I failed."

The same can't be said for the reader, who wants nothing less than triumph for this approval-hungry, communityseeking soul. In his epilogue, in which he recounts that about 50 Manhasset residents were killed in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Moehringer finds kinship in mourning: "Manhasset, where I'd once felt like the only boy without a father, was now a town full of fatherless children." In his efforts to fill the hole where his father should have been, Moehringer has discovered consolation in unlikely places and written an aching torch song of a memoir.

Donna Rifkind writes for the Los Angeles Times. She is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by The Sun, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.