If it takes a village to raise a child, for J. R. Moehringer, it took Manhasset, in Long Island, NY; and more specifically, it took a neighborhood bar named Dickens (later called Publicans).
In the 1970s and 80s, the young boy was first captivated by The Voice, the unseen presence of his absent father. When the radio presence mysteriously disappeared, he inadvertently stumbled upon a host of other mentors in the bar on the corner in his village.
Two themes guided the young boy: growing up to take care of his mother, and getting into Yale. Along the way, there were the men at the bar, who took him under their wing: Uncle Charlie; Steve, the bar owner with the Cheshire smile; Joey D; Cager; Bob the Cop….and assorted members of this very influential club of mentors who stood in for the missing father.
We struggle along with J. R. as he achieves his goal of growing to manhood. Connecting with J. R. is inevitable, as the coming-of-age trials and tribulations are sprinkled with the stories of his mentors and his own voice laden with humor and honesty. From this “school” of tender influences, it is no surprise that J. R. became a writer. His efforts to become a reporter (from copyboy) at the New York Times had me rooting for him, even as his path inevitably took him elsewhere to greater heights.
Other influences, like the quirky managers of a bookstore in Arizona, added “voices” to the others when they encouraged him and lent him books that would ever after enrich his life.
In the final pages of The Tender Bar, J. R. is watching a video of his mother holding him as a baby, and these thoughts sum up his story for me:
“…I’d always believed that being a man meant standing your ground, but this was something my mother had done better than anyone. And yet she’d also known when it was time to go. She’d left my father, left Grandpa’s, left New York, and I was always the beneficiary of her restless courage. I’d been so focused on getting in, I’d failed to appreciate my mother’s genius for getting out….I’d always been dimly aware, but at that moment, with my first glimpse of the warrior behind my mother’s blank face, I grasped the idea fully and put it into words for the first time. All this searching and longing for the secret of being a good man, and all I needed to do was follow the example of one very good woman.”
Brilliantly chronicled, one young man’s journey through life’s adversity toward his ultimate path captivated this reader to the very end, and left me wanting more of the story. Five stars.