The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

August 2016. Returning from a grueling nine weeks of intensive Japanese classes, I decided to spend the remaining four weeks of summer break by lounging on the couch eating noodles and catching up on all the books I hadn’t had a chance to read during the school year. After three weeks reveling in all the stress-free goodness of break though, I discovered to my dismay that I’d sucked my reading material dry.

Desperate, I asked my dad for a book recommendation. Without hesitation he answered, “The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer” and added “one of my favorite books.”

My initial reaction was apprehension – how could a bar be tender? What does that even mean? I thought. But if my dad held it in such high regard, I assumed it had to be worthwhile. If my dad loves a book, there’s a good reason why.

My dad retrieved his copy from our family’s bookshelf and handed it to me.

I appraised the cover: a little boy’s curious eyes gazed into my own. I noticed the color of the eyes – an enigmatic shade of brown.

“What’s it about?” I asked, my stare locked to the cover.

“It’s about the author’s life growing up in a bar.”

The book was heavy; I estimated it to be at least 400 pages long. I assumed it’d take me weeks to get through… I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to devote the rest of my break to bonding with a protagonist who was raised by a counter that serves alcoholic beverages. Although the length seemed daunting at first though, by the final few pages of the book I found myself wishing it was longer. I didn’t want it to end.

The story takes the reader through Moehringer’s life chronologically. It transitions from his troubled childhood and tumultuous upbringing without a father figure to his life as an aimless and disillusioned young man. Though Moehringer’s life was anything but predictable, interlaced throughout his life exists one constant: the bar from his hometown.

Moehringer was intrigued by the idea of the bar as a little boy – by the idea of rowdy middle-aged men meeting in a smoky, darkly lit tavern – but his curiosity gradually transcended into an obsession with, and eventual reliance on, the bar as a place of solace and escape. It became his home. And the eclectic crowd of regulars with charismatic personalities and cheshire smiles who frequented it became his family. To Moehringer, the bar was a place where he knew he would always be welcome. And amidst one chaotic life event after another, the tender bar never failed to welcome him back with open arms.

The Tender Bar is not simply a story that you can absorb passively while watching the plot unfold from the sidelines as you munch through your bucket of popcorn; it’s an experience. Moehringer writes with such vivid detail – with such exact, enticing prose – that he sucks you into his own story. He lures you in. Suddenly, you are being raised in the bar too. Without even realizing it you experience the bar. And you fall in love with it.

I believe that every single person should give The Tender Bar a try because of its honesty, approachability, and enigmatic pull. And it not only invites readers into the bar and offers them a seat, but also encourages readers to reflect about their past. It may even inspire someone to write a memoir of their own. (This happened, actually, to Andre Agassi.)

Here’s a link to the paperback edition on Amazon.

Please do not be daunted by the name or the topic or by the 400+ pages as I was. The Tender Bar is a worthwhile – dare I say “life-changing” – read. So buy a copy and read it. You can thank me and my dad for the recommendation later.

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