Thursday, July 22, 2010

"The Tender Bar" by J.R. Moehringer

Sometimes reading great writing can be an odd thing for me... both inspiring and frustrating. The inspiring part comes from thinking I could maybe write just as well and the frustrating part comes from thinking maybe I can't.

There's a duality in there which makes me think of other dualities like Jacques Derrida's "difference vs differance" (which I mention in this post on the words and their import) or the Bryce Courtenay quote (apparently borrowed from elsewhere) "together since the world began, the madman and the lover" from his book "Tandia" (which I reference in this post dealing with South Africa).

But, enough digression into dualities. What this post is about is about is great writing... specifically in the form of J.R. Moehringer's memoir "The Tender Bar."

Moehringer is the co-author of Andre Agassi's brilliant memoir "Open"... which I reviewed here. I wasn't really aware of Agassi's collaborator other than that he didn't want his name on the cover so as to not distract from Agassi. Really glad I did hear of "The Tender Bar", though, as it's good for the same reason that I enjoyed "Open" so much. The big similarity between the two memoirs is their honesty... each memoir lays the subject bare on the table for readers to examine and (to borrow a phrase) sift through the entrails of their lives and take as a reader what they will.

The Agassi book is more widely read with he being a famous athlete, but Moehringer's personal memoir is even more interesting to me in that it traces the events of his life that helped lead up to being a writer. Specifically, it's about growing up with a single mother and male role models who haunt the Manhasset, Long Island bar Dickens (which later became Publicans and eventually Edison's and is referenced in the book title).

What I took from "The Tender Bar"...

- Entertainment via a well told yarn about how other people live.

Moehringer's time growing up didn't seem to reach the dysfunction in that of Augusten Burroughs youth, but I will say that his story was similar in that he grew up in a completely different time, place and atmosphere than I know... which is me thinks a good thing for a reader.

- The idea of life events, people and their ability to impact... but, how that impact is not preordained.

It would be easy to read this book and conclude that Moehringer was destined to be a writer due to his introduction to literature at a young age, mentorship from zealot-like bookstore workers and time spent at a bar where people cared about great writing. Heck, keep in mind the place started out called Dickens.

I don't think that's a safe assumption, though, as throughout there's a number of metaphorical forks in road that Moehringer came to and which ultimately would up with he being a working author. Not to give away any portion of the book and it's events, but it's interesting to read of how some of those forks in the road are ones that the author chose and some were entirely chosen for him. I think the idea here is that it's simply really interesting to see the turns that one's life takes and how one event or choice can impact what's to follow. Got to try to take from things, people and places (including bars) what they have to give you and then move forward...

- Great stuff about writing... as well as the process around it.

There's frequent references to great works of literature such as "The Great Gatsby" (which was set by Fitzgerald in the Moehringer's hometown of Manhasset), "Great Expectations" by Dickens and "Finnegan's Wake" from Joyce.

Beyond this, there's some really profound statements made by Moehringer that bear noting here.

- Description of his various father figures and finding that the way to get close was through "words being their password."

- Quote from the author after reverentially describing the people at Dickens... "these exaggerations weren't false, they were what I believed."

- Story told Moehringer by a Priest... "Do you know why God invented writers? Because he loves a good story. And He doesn't give a damn about words. Words are the curtain we've hung between Him and our true selves. Try not to think about words. Don't strain for the perfect sentence. There's no such thing. Writing is guesswork. Every sentence is an educated guess, the reader's as much as yours. Think about that the next time you cur a piece of paper into your typewriter."

- Perhaps due to this "Divine lesson", there's mention from Moehringer fairly late in the book of how began to write well when he didn't focus on producing great prose, but rather simply getting words out on a page.

- How good writing is above all, truthful writing. This is I suppose mandatory for memoir writing (well, perhaps not for all), but me thinks it can be extrapolated as a statement about all good writing. Whether it's as interesting (to many) as the story of a tennis champion (Agassi), a writer who spent a lot of time at a bar (Moehringer) or a guy trying to build a career (me), there's a lot to be said for open and honest writing.

- A desire to read more from and about Moehringer.

Mention is made in the epilogue of how September 11 brought him back to Manhasset and then Moehringer writing a story for the LA Times about his cousin Tim who died in the Towers. Also referenced is another piece for the Times about Manhasset itself and the impact of Sept 11 on the town.

Additionally, there's bibliography links on Moehringer's Wikipedia page and the book website can be found here.

Great book, loved it.