Take one part CHARMING BILLY, a dash of Frank McCourt, add a shot of "Cheers," serve straight up, and you'll have the charming concoction that is THE TENDER BAR. J.R. Moehringer fondly reflects on his youth, however misspent, within the cooling shadows of the town's local bar.
In Manhasset, the place to go was Dickens (later renamed Publicans) on Plandome Road. Like the pubs of old, it was the place to celebrate, commiserate and pontificate. Sooner or later, everyone wound up at its door, thanks largely to its kind and commanding owner, Steve. In the mid-seventies, J.R. Moehringer was an adolescent badly in need of a father figure. His dedicated mother worked as many as three jobs to keep them on their feet. His grandparents were concerned but somewhat distant; his grandfather was downright abusive to everyone except little J.R., who was so named after his father, a radio disc jockey who has little to do with his son. Moehringer listens to his late-night radio broadcasts and refers to him only as "The Voice," a far away, unknowable being who flits in and out of his young son's life only briefly.
When he and his mother move to Arizona for better prospects and to be near their cousins, he finds himself lonelier than ever. His mother decides to send him back to his grandparents in Manhasset for the summer, and soon he gets his first taste of life around the bar. His Uncle Charlie, at his mother's request, starts taking little J.R. with him on excursions to the beach and to ball games, all of which culminate with a visit to "the Bar."
Finally, he finds what he has been looking for --- a family, albeit an unconventional one. Who wouldn't want to glean all he can from guys named Bobo, Joey D. and Colt? At long last, Moehringer feels as if he belongs somewhere; rather than bemoan his absent father, he finds many other men --- and in essence, the bar itself --- who step into the role of father for him.
Poignant and heartfelt, with just the right amount of sentimentality, THE TENDER BAR is an absorbing read that goes down nice and easy. Moehringer skillfully recreates life at the local bar and the colorful characters inside as a sort of celebration, almost memorializing a part of American life that doesn't exist the way it used to --- a sort of modern-day A CLEAN, WELL-LIGHTED PLACE for the 20th/21st century, while also serving as a homage to the powerful love between a mother and son, struggling to get by but still managing to enjoy a "Happy Hour" now and then.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 23, 2011