A boy tries hard to be a man
His mother takes him by the hand
If he stops to think, he starts to cry
Bono wrote those lyrics in 1981 but they’re the words that I thought of when I finished J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar — part memoir, part tribute to the bar that had helped raise him — but I wondered as the book drew to a close, would he recognize the sacrifices that his mother had made to make him a man? (Spoiler: yes. At one point, he writes: “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.”) Throughout and even after, however, he was full of praise and adoration towards the men who were surrogate fathers to him, from his Uncle Charlie to Bob the Cop to Bobo and Cager and most especially to Steve, the owner of Publicans, the bar he romanticized throughout much of his life.
And yet, the person he turned to in his hour of need was often his selfless, long-suffering mother. He turned away from her as well, in shame, self-loathing, embarrassment, and in the need to become independent (even though it seemed doubtful he would accomplish this). Perhaps this is what keeps me from rating this memoir, which is undoubtedly well-written — even poetic at times — and full of heartache and joy and grief and love, with five stars. Moehringer is a talented writer, but is sometimes myopic in the treatment he gives his childhood and young adulthood. It is clear to the reader that he doesn’t always give credit where credit is due, nor is he able to view the men and the bar at all objectively. Given that this is his memoir, that’s fine. It’s even to be expected. But it’s disappointing because the reader never really feels that young J.R. has grown.