One For The Road

When book-sellers go to a convention, they apparently do spend the night reading. This past June, at BookExpo America in New York City, Hyperion Books started handing out prepublication copies of J. R. Moehringer's debut memoir, "The Tender Bar," on a Friday. By Saturday morning, word of mouth had made Moehringer Topic A on the convention floor. No one who's read the book has stopped talking about it since: what conventioneers were calling "the book about the kid growing up in a bar" is poised to be the fall's sleeper hit when it arrives in stores in September. Cynics may scoff, but they haven't read the book.

Moehringer, 40, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, grew up in Manhasset, a small town on New York's Long Island. His dad, a disc jockey, was "a man of many talents," the son writes, "but his one true genius was disappearing." The kid spends most of the book searching for his father's voice on the radio dial. Raised by his mother, Moehringer was an only child and, by his own account, a needy kid. "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 my mother, grandmother, aunt and five female cousins with whom I lived." He found the men he needed in Publicans, the local saloon where his uncle tended bar. From childhood through high school and college, they were his babysitters, his rides to the beach, his counselors and confessors. "They taught me how to hold a curveball, how to swing a nine iron, how to throw a spiral, how to play seven-card stud... They taught me how to stand and promised me that a man's posture was his philosophy." Later they taught him how to coin a well-turned phrase and how to appreciate a well-turned ankle. Ultimately, "they taught me to be confident. That was all. But that was enough. That, I later realized, was everything." Well, maybe not everything. They also taught him how to tell good stories. Quick proof? Go directly to page 137 for what is, quite possibly, the funniest sex scene anyone has ever written.

From childhood until well into adulthood, Moehringer was totally in love with Publicans--the good kind of "in love," where you really pay attention--and he makes his readers fall in love with it, too. When he takes up with a college girl who can't fathom his fascination with barflies or his obsession with this particular bar, all we can think is, whatsa matter with her? At most bars, "people talk to justify drinking--at Publicans they drink to justify talking." The talk "could jump from horse racing to politics to fashion to astrology to baseball to historic love affairs, all in the span of one beer." Moehringer is just guessing about the one-beer part, because he never stayed for just one. And sure enough, in the final chapters comes the reckoning where he quits drinking, because this is not an age in which one may simply celebrate a gin mill and let it go at that. To his credit, Moehringer settles his account with no fuss. He's frankly--and there's something admirable in this--a little fuzzy about why he quit. Not every memoir should end with a neat lesson. And besides, this isn't a book about sobering up. It's about growing up. 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.