The Tender Bar by JR Moehringer

This is the second autobiography I’ve read in the last week about a man who grew up with no father figure and took to the bar and drinking. As a man with no father figure who took to the bar and drinking, I can tell you, that’s what happens. When a father leaves his son, he leaves a gigantic hole. Now, that hole can be filled with other great fatherly role models, and much of the success in my life is due to these role models including my best friend, a high school coach, and then a volunteer organization and all the men in it. None-the-less, you’re still like Swiss cheese, and you still have to learn a lot of life’s lessons the hard way. Now at the same time, you can also have either a neglectful father or an abusive father which can be worse. If I do ever have a son, I’ll tell you, in my mind, leaving him and never visiting him, would be tantamount to child abuse. Am I going to take the chance that he’ll find the perfect fatherly role-model? Not a chance. Chances are he’ll turn into one of those people like me, test the limits on everything because you have learn firsthand by mistakes not advice. It means excessive drinking, partying, womanizing, brawling, etc. It means being fucking stupid and learning the hard way that to be a man is to do all things in moderation, to grow the fuck up and treat women with respect and not notches on a bed post. It means going for quality not quantity. It means endless parties are empty mirages.

Unlike Monks Swimming, this memoir spends a considerable time on the author’s youth and then slowly moving through his young adulthood. Unlike Monks Swimming, it has a lot of poignant, sad, lumpy-throat moments where men leave his life. It starts off on Long Island in a small town, Manhassat, around a bar named Dickens renamed Publican. JR, the author, lives in an overcrowded boarding house owned by grandfather, a verbally abusive son-of-a-bitch with his uncle and mother but then they get their own place only to follow their aunt to Phoenix soon after which her aunt leaves and leaves the two of them all by their lonely. For summers, JR goes back to Manhassat and is raised by the men at Publican. He meets two eccentric moles who manage a bookstore and who teach him literature sufficiently to get him into Yale. At Yale, he realizes he’s both the poorest and the least educated. A lot of stories go that way. I think most literature is written by poor kids who are so gifted they get into prestigious schools and they develop this inferiority complex around rich kids. JR studies literature and history. He hooks up with one of the hottest women on campus, Sydney but then gets dumped by her over and over. He almost gives up on college when he keeps returning to the Publican to commiserate and get drunk. His mother gives him a pep talk, and he gets his shit together and graduates. Then Sydney talks him into writing for the New York Times, so he gets a job as a trainee only to realize hardly any of them get offered a job when the Times can simply hire any award-winning reporter from around the country. Once again he falls on his Publican crutches.

I would recommend this book to any alcoholic. It seriously made me think about myself and my drunkard ways. The whole time he spent at Publicans he could have sent his drinking money to his mother, but he couldn’t. He had a big hole in his heart left by his father, and the men at Publicans filled that hole. Is that why guys hang out at bars? For myself, I go to hit on women, but in looking back, I realize that the only thing I ever do with women is take them to dinner then take them out to bars. Sydney says that she didn’t wind up with JR because he loved that bar too much, but I believe it was partially an excuse. She just wanted to be with a richer guy not a NY Times trainee, barfly or not. But JR makes an acute observation. The guys at the bar are great to commiserate with but feel jealous and distant when JR is doing too well. JR puts it very well. The bar is for people who have stopped trying. The bar and the drink are for quitters to commiserate and lick their wounds. The bar and drink are tricky. It’s easy to get carried away and addicted to them both. They feed one another and pretty soon you don’t know which one you’re addicted to. I now realize that women pretty much think that guys who hang out at bars are losers. Why would you want to date or marry a guy who drinks more than four drinks in a single night? I’d like to say, some guys are can handle themselves, but who are you kidding? The vast majority of dudes who hang around bars a lot sooner or later get hooked. It saps their ambition and time. When I get wasted on a Friday or Saturday night, I’m pretty much useless until the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday. Could I spend that time writing more books or promoting the books I have written? In the epilogue, JR admits that he quit drinking once he left the Publican. I think he wrote the book to justify his wasting so many nights there, sort of like an excuse to say you were just doing research, but I think he knows that he went there primarily to fill the void of his absent father.

The obvious answer is moderation. Four drinks in a single night is good enough. Once you go past four, you have a much higher chance of doing something stupid or blacking out in which case, you’re likely to do something extremely stupid. What’s the point? Past four drinks, no sane woman wants you. You only wind up with equally drunk women with equally bad problems. Sure, you have to sew your oats, but if you find yourself getting blitzed more than a year, I think you’re no longer sewing your oats, you’re basically giving up. More than any other book I’ve ever read including Monk’s Swimming, this book seriously makes me reassess my drinking habits. I can certainly make a similar excuse and say going out and drinking exposes me to the drama and adventures necessary to write some pretty interesting books, but at a certain point, you have to stop drinking and cavorting sufficiently to write those pretty interesting books and make an effort to promote and sell them. Otherwise, you really have just given up. Yes, I used to go out five times a night, and I have cut back, but this book certainly makes me want to cut back even further. I have enough stories. In fact, I know there are three more good novels in me that haven’t been written. If you know any alcoholic, keep this in mind, this book will be one hell of a sobering warning, not so much by way of, hey look how badly this drunk wound up, but rather, it exposes why the drunk drinks and how easy it is to keep drinking, to give up, and wind up nothing but a drunk, which is perhaps one of the saddest things around.

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