Sunday, September 25, 2011
Humor on the Rocks: A Review of The Tender Bar
Despite what I know as a reader and a writer, when I think of memoir I think of revealing journals, reflective diaries, intimate letters and scandalizing intimacy: no more, no less. I think of memoir as a label as necessary as “scrapbooking”: both are terms used to define something as simple and as complex as our primal need to understand and to be understood. But as far as labels go, when I hear them I tend to dismiss them reflexively. Like other memoirs introduced this semester, The Tender Bar refuses to be dismissed. On the surface, in The Tender Bar, Moehringer blends the story of his attempts to replace his absent, alcoholic father with his attempts to plant himself among the ever-present alcoholics of Publicans (formerly Dickens) bar. But it doesn't stop there. Within the pages of Moehringer’s cocktail, the search for identity mixes with thick layers of responsibility, love, success and defeat. The combination is intoxicating.
With a distinctive voice, Moehringer introduces the hand he is dealt: a struggling, single mother; an emotionally and financially stingy grandfather; a loving, verbally abused grandmother; a gaggle of cousins led by a harpy of an aunt; and an alcoholic, gambling somewhat neurotic uncle. He offers no visions of grandeur, few explanations and even fewer excuses. Yet, in this reflective essay, Moehringer offers the reader the wonderful gift of humor. Humor laces his struggle to protect his mother; his attempts to forge an identity among the men of his life; his challenges at Yale; his first attempt at seduction and his first entanglement with love. While an underdog worthy of Uncle Charlie’s infatuation, JR’s humor is what hooks me. I wince when JR’s father stands him up, the first time. I laugh through his bookstore education. I understand Dorothy’s intricate relationship with poverty. I exhale as JR finally reads Yale’s acceptance letter (though I know it will come). I cheer when JR finally frees himself from Sidney (though I am quite surprised he gets her at all). And when he seemingly breaks the New York Times tradition of not promoting copyboys, I exalt: that is until they don’t offer him a reporter job (yet). I celebrate his every triumph. Of course, his descent in to alcoholism is disturbing, but he reveals it with humor and I know Moehringer will be just fine.
Moehringer’s humor is not self-deprecating. He laughs at himself and at others, he laughs at his choices and at his actions, and he laughs at his expectations and illusions. I’m so busy laughing along with him that I don’t feel myself reeled in completely until he presents his mother with the Yale ring. I am so proud of this kid until he, as his coworker says, “fucks up” again. Moehringer keeps few secrets from his readers. While I am not surprised that he gets in to Yale; gets Sidney (ok I’m surprised that it happens at all not by the presentation of it); gets his heart broken; and gets an eventual position at the Times, I don’t doubt them in the way I might if they had not been carefully set up. There seems to be no haphazard occurrence, Moehringer leaves nothing to chance. By the time a more mature, sober Moehringer revisits Publican’s, I recognize what he has paid to come back: he has shown me.
Moehringer’s realization that he has in his mother what he has been searching to recreate in others, is one of the greatest gifts I receive from his memoir. I appreciate the tying of loose ends, the sense of closure. I recognize that my reading his memoir is as important to Moehringer as his writing it. So, as a writer I receive two lessons from The Tender Bar. First, it is important to be able to approach myself and the characters in my life with humor. Humor adds my tone, my voice to my experience. If what I put on the page doesn’t sound like me, it isn’t worth saying it. Secondly, I learn that lessons, like experiences, are to be shared. So perhaps through this memoir, I have learned to define memoir, and by extension my need for it. More than a collection of snapshots and experiences, memoir is the sharing of lessons. It is the chronicle of where emotionally, mentally and physically I am and of what I paid to get here.
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