In addition to both having read the book, Mrs. Cayenne and I went to see a reading by Mr. Moehringer the Friday Night before Thanksgiving at the Center for Southern Literature. The reading was easily the best event that I have attended at the CSL. I promise to tell you about the book, but first a few words about the author.
J.R. Moehringer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the L.A. Times. The piece that won the Pulitzer was a 10-part story about an isolated African-American community in Gee’s Bend, Alabama that was soon to be re-connected directly with their white neighbors for the first time since slavery when a ferry would be built linking them to the other side of the river. At the time of the award, Moehringer was the Atlanta Bureau chief for the L.A. Times (he now lives in Denver). Moehringer attended Yale and was also a Fellow at Harvard.
And the book is really, really good. I had read a few glowing reviews of the book, but I wasn’t sold at first. In the book, Moehringer has a scene where someone at the bar asked him what the book he was reading was about. As a newly minted Yalie, Moehringer hated the question and laid into the guy about not reducing books into a bullet list of plot points. So you would think that some of the reviews would skip this approach. You’d be wrong. Almost all of the book reviews that I read hit these plot points without much in the way of touching on the larger themes:
- Boy abandoned by father
- Boy lives with single-mother at grandfather’s house
- Boy raised by bar
- Boy makes good
- 9/11 happens
That is technically what the book is “about”, but reducing it that way really does a disservice to the weight of the book. I became sold on the book after hearing Maureen Corrigan give the book a proper treatment on NPR.
The book does tell the story of J.R.’s abandonment by his father, forcing he and his mother to live with his grandfather in the crappiest house in the very tony Long Island town of Manhassett – a town, Moehringer tells us, that takes its drinking very seriously. Being from such a town myself, I could relate to the sentiment. To make matters worse, J.R.’s dad was a famous New York DJ who chose fame over family. J.R. was able to follow his dad up and down the dial throughout his childhood, but seldom saw the old man. J.R. worried constantly about his mother and their situation, becoming a bit of an old woman at an early age.
One day he and his mom watched the local tavern team (Dicken’s – later Publicans) playing softball. J.R. instantly fell in love with the men (asking his mom why they are all so happy – his mom replies, “I guess they’re happy about the beer). One of the men was his Uncle Charlie, head bartender at the bar. Concerned about the lack of male role models, his mother, perhaps unwisely, taps Uncle Charlie and the men to spend some time with the boy. The men take J.R. under their collective wing and initiate him in the manly arts. None of this, by the way, is gay.
The book follows J.R. as he comes to count on the men and the bar as his support structure – his reference point for how to be a Man and what it means to be a Man. The book is loaded with great New York bar chatter. One of the greatest characters in the English canon is presented in this book – that he actually existed does not diminish the characterization in any way. The minor character “Fuckembabe” steals every scene that he’s in. Every patron of the bar got a nickname. Fuckembabe got his name because his speech consists mostly of gibberish but always ends with a cackle and the words, “Fuck ‘em, babe.”
Manhassett was the basis of the fictional East Egg in The Great Gatsby, so there are literary allusions to Gatsby sprinkled throughout the book. One of the more resonant references was in a scene on a melancholy night at the bar where the men each discuss their “Daisy Buchanan.” The scene is so evocative that you want to have a pull on your beer and talk about your own Daisy. Plus, now I have to go back and re-read Gatsby.
The book is “about” a lot of things, and there is a lot of wisdom in its pages. What the book is about is abandonment, familial love, disappointment, replacement love, emotional and chemical dependence, failure, disillusionment, belonging, becoming a man, identity, etc. I’m going to go out on a limb and describe this book in a way that I’m reasonably sure it has never been described anywhere else: it is a thinking man’s Rocky. You know that Moehringer is going to be a success before it is all over, but you can’t help but cheer for him throughout. It’s the great American story, and it is a really, really good story in Moehringer’s hands. So much of this book resonated with me that it was a little scary. And so much of the book is essentially about the painful and poorly illuminated process of becoming a man that I would have thought it exclusively a “guys” book. However, Mrs. Cayenne loved it every bit as much as I did. So read it already.
An aside: Many of the reviews talk about the book being an ode to the local tavern where everyone knows your name. And much of the book reads that way. Moehringer himself no longer drinks, however. He had a realization that for him, “drinking and trying are not the same thing.” There are no spectacular drunken depths to crawl out of – the unspoken implication is that he just felt better able to focus on life when he got himself out of the bar. He still goes to bars to write and soak up the atmosphere. At the reading he was despairing that a study found that the number of bars in the US has declined by 50% since the 60’s. Moehringer wondered where all of the young men would go to learn “guy culture” (my term).
Another aside: The book ends with a clear turning point in Moehringer’s life, and there the book would have ended if 9/11 had not happened. Moehringer went back to Manhassett for the first time in 10 years after the attacks, and an epilogue tells of that experience. He felt isolated as a boy without a father, and now there are hundreds of such boys in his hometown. The epilogue catches the reader up on what has happened to some of the “characters” in the bar in the intervening years – usually with just a quick sentence or two. Mrs. Cayenne had become so attached to some of the characters that she berated the author at length about not telling us more about their whereabouts, peppering him with questions about the lives of these men who had been so integral to his life that he rarely saw anymore. Clearly this line of questioning is a testament to the amazing talent that Moehringer has of bringing the men “alive” and how much the reader comes to care about them. Nevertheless, my book has been signed by the author with the following inscription: Dear xxx and xxx – Sorry you hated the book – J.R. Moehringer.