Reading Someone Else’s Life

Why do I read memoirs?

Is it, maybe, to see if other people are different from the way I am–if they have faced certain challenges, stared down certain decisions,–things I too have stood with, nose to nose,– and come up with new and fresh and totally ingenious solutions? So that I can think: Hey! Great handle! I could have–I SHOULD have–done that.  I WILL do that, next time.  If there is a next time.

Or–less nobly,–do I read memoirs for the pleasure of the superior view, feeling empathy laced with smugness when I read of the fellow traveler who made the exact wrong choice. He walked through the door instead of, as I knew he should, slamming it shut; she threw her coat on the bed and stayed when clearly, she knew and I knew, it was time for her to leave.

“Thank God,” I might think to myself, “thank God, I chose differently.”

Or maybe, I’m looking for a sameness, a universality: you, maybe, write from a small farm in Kenya; I am more familiar with a minor US rust belt city. But we both teetered at that point of decision: stay or go? Be married or be single? The safe way or the highway?

Maybe the allure of memoir is that there really are only so many plot lines–but what an infinite number of interpretations, from the “There but for the grace of God” line to the “If only I’d thought of,–if only I’d had the courage for, THAT!” line.  Whatever. It is a pure pleasure to sit down with, to sink into, someone else’s well told story.

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I’ve had a copy of JR Moehringer’s The Tender Bar on my shelf for, probably, five years. I read great reviews, so I grabbed the book when I saw it offered at a deep discount–What a score! I thought. But the reviews, while they glowed, had compared The Tender Bar to other memoirs of childhood–and those memoirs were of abuse and poverty, cruelty and punishment. Of course, since a well-written book was the result, I knew the writers all survived; but I told myself I was just not up for another tale of violent dysfunction.

I figured, from the book jacket blurbs, that JR Moehringer was a little kid hanging out in a bar, scrabbling together an existence, –scrabbling together a FAMILY–when he should have been–oh, I don’t know.  In school. Playing ball. Working at the local supermarket to pay for college. I conjured up a picture of unscrupulous adults leading this neglected, abandoned, poorly-parented kid down a merry path to Mayhem. And I decided, again and again, not to read the book.

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Had I not started this blog, making the commitment to read every book that I’d brought home to my shelves–to figure out why it called to me and why I answered–The Tender Bar probably would have stayed on the shelf, or found itself donated or discarded. And–here’s a lesson–I would have been poorer for it, poorer for not having read JR Moehringer’s 413 pages of wonderful, sometimes magical, prose.

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This is not a sad story of a neglected kid, although this story has sad moments.  This is the hope-imbued story of a clear-eyed kid who knew what he needed.  When he couldn’t find the original, or when the original was no good, he went out and got himself substitutes that did more and worked better than the real thing could ever have done.

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JR Moehringer was a fatherless kid growing up in the weirdest house in Manhasset, Long Island, among a unique cast of characters.  Many of the people in JR’s young life have flaws, for sure, but there are also those who rise to the level of Hero–some for a lifetime, some for just a moment.

There is Uncle Charlie, who manufactures his own brand of male bonding for his father-seeking nephew–Uncle Charlie, the Bar Tender at the Tender Bar.  There is JR’s not very nice grandfather, who pulls off an unbelievable transformation and steps in when JR needs a surrogate at his school’s Father/Son breakfast.

That’s the quest, the theme, of this book: having been given a father who couldn’t meet the mark, couldn’t even be involved, JR goes searching for someone–or some ones–to fill the gap. And he finds them, in merry measure: from Uncle Charlie through the whole cast at Publicans, cops and stockbrokers, lawyers and busboys, the educated and the mostly incoherent–a troop of men who are, in varying degrees, happy to step in and close JR’s father gap.

But here’s what Moehringer always has: his mother.  She’s a remarkable woman, strong, quiet, implacable. She believes without hesitation in JR. And JR, rooted in the sunshine of that implacable belief, succeeds.

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I read a memoir once on the writing life: sadly, I remember neither author nor title.  But I remember this: the author posited that writers ply their craft to fill what she called ‘The Child Hole.”  The Child Hole is the empty place left by some elemental lack; for some people, the lifelong quest to populate that vacuum entails, the author suggested, writing.

Clearly, Moehringer had that Child Hole, but I believe he filled it, and that he came to the realization that the hole was not as deep or wide as he believed (he had, after all, that staunch and stalwart mother) before he began to write The Tender Bar.  He tells us that he started to write novel after novel about Publicans, that nothing ever sounded right, all the high notes going flat, until he finally came to tell the story in memoir.  I think it was his own success–humble and self-deprecating, Moehringer always  seems surprised at how well he has done,–that gave him the confidence.  That, and the realization that he always had his mother.

He may have felt at times that there was no safety net, may have longed for a pair of broad and callused masculine hands to be there, ready to catch him.

The hands were always there.  They were callused, yes, but fine and feminine, never lacking in strength.  Those hands would have caught him; he’d never have been able to fall so far he couldn’t climb back out.

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Why do I read memoir?  In this case, the reading left me surprised and enriched.  As Spring comes shyly toward us, I think it’s nice to read of successful motherhood, of rites of passage navigated to good effect. It’s nice to read of hope.

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