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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer (2005)
The Tender Bar directed by George Clooney (2021)
Thoughts on the book
My first memoir of the year! I love reading memoirs, so I am sure this will be the first of many in 2022. As I have said in the past, even though I love reading memoirs, they aren’t always the best because you don’t always get that magic combo of amazing writing with a great story. With The Tender Bar you get both! Now this is no Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which is also about someone who grows up with a dad who isn’t around and both stories deal with alchoholism, however this was still a great read. Also, the chapters are relatively short, which I like because it makes it feel like you are reading fast lol.
There were things about certain characters that I did not like, and at times Moehringer tells a story of someone being sexist, abusive or being wild and putting peoples lives at risk-yet tells them as if it is funny. But I guess at that time in his life he did find it funny. If you are wanting some examples, you are in luck because I highlighted a few passages.
“How about this Patty Hearst? That is one screwy broad. Maybe so but I’d still do her. If she was holding a machine gun you’d do her? Especially if she was holding a machine gun ha ha. You’re sick.”
“…I told him a story I’d heard at Gilgo, about Bobo tending bar wearing nothing but his bathrobe, exposing himself to customers. When someone took offense, a fight broke out…”
“… If you think Sigourney Weaver is sexy then you are a homosexual.”
This one is a quote when Charlie calls up his girlfriend in the middle of the night, thinking he is being romantic by drunkenly singing to her over the phone and she is upset about him waking her up. “She let him know it, and he stopped singing to rebuke her for scolding him, then resumed singing, and it all sounded something like this: “‘My Funny Valen’—shut the f— up! ‘Sweet comic Val’—shut your god—m mouth! ‘You make me smile with my’—pipe down while I’m f—ing serenading you, you b—h!””
The Ben Affleck version of Charlie seems to be a man who respects women, whereas the real Charlie didn’t have any problem being an a-hole and cussing out his girlfriend.
I do like that he didn’t paint the men in his life through rose colored glasses. His uncle Charlie was an important person to him, but he doesn’t shy away from describing his less than admirable attributes. The movie strays from this and instead tries to show everyone as not having a bad side-except of course JR’s father-but we’ll get to that. As the story goes on, JR does become disillusioned with the bar and drinking, realizing who he actually wants to be and the kind of people he wants to be influenced by.
There is a great passage at the end when he is talking to his mom and it reads, “looking into her green-brown eyes I understood that every virtue I associated with manhood—toughness, persistence, determination, reliability, honesty, integrity, guts—my mother exemplified. I’d always been dimly aware, but at that moment, with my first glimpse of the warrior behind my mother’s blank face, I grasped the idea fully and put it into words for the first time. 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.”
Ben Affleck plays Uncle Charlie, the main father figure in the movie. They condensed a lot of differently characters from the book into Charlie for the movie. I get it, it’s easier to have one actor fill these different roles, rather than higher all these different actors. But that was the point of the book, he was “raised” by all these different men in his life. Mostly men he met from Dickens/Publicans.
Ben Affleck was nominated for a SAG award for this role, I’m recording this the end of January, so I don’t know if he won. But I wonder if he will also be nominated or an Oscar. I don’t think his performance is worthy of a nomination personally, but the SAG nominations tend to be reflective of what we can expect from the Academy.
Another side note, in the book Charlie was bald, and this was actually a big part of his personality in a way. Whereas of course Ben Affleck has a full head of hair.
If you want to hear about another Ben Affleck movie, check out my Gone Girl Book vs Movie!
Tye Sheridan is adult JR and is good in this role. He didn’t amaze me, but he was good. Side note-he looks a lot like Andy Samberg.
Lily Rabe is wonderful as JR’s mom.
Daniel Ranieri is very cute as young JR.
Briana Middleton plays the women JR is in love with and obsesses over, Sidney. Her character is pretty much the same in book and movie. Though in the book they do seriously date for a while and she makes him think she wants to marry him, only to once again break things off. She is a pretty big part of the book and movie, but there aren’t too many changes with her, so I won’t be talking about her in this episode.
Christopher Lloyd has to be mentioned! He is the role of Grandpa and is excellent. This character is changed a lot from book to movie. They made him more likeable, which is fine when you see the movie as a stand-alone thing. But in general, I just didn’t like that the movie made a point to make everyone likeable, whereas in the book, as I said, these people had some pretty big flaws and the Grandpa is straight up not a good person in the book.
I’ll just start with Grandpa. In the movie, JR’s extended family (on his mother’s side obviously, since he doesn’t spend much time with his dad) is made to seem loud and a bit dysfunctional, but in a fun, loving way. Even when the mom tells JR that grandpa is stingy with his love, it’s not said in a serious way necessarily. In the movie, once they move in with Grandpa and Grandma, the mom lives there for the rest of the movie which takes place over about ten years! In the book, the mom did not like staying with her parents, and moved out as soon as she could afford her own place. She also tells JR that when she was a child, her dad carried her out into the ocean and dropped her in it, almost drowning her. He thought it was funny, being a bully and doing something he thinks is funny, not caring that it was traumatizing for her. He knew it scared her, and he just laughed.
Grandpa is also verbally abusive to his wife. He is always called her, “Stupid woman” and belittles her. When JR graduates’ college, he moves in with them and then later moves out. When moving out, Grandma almost begs him to stay because he provides a good buffer between Grandpa and Grandma. The movie has the scene where Grandpa gets dressed up to go to the father son breakfast and the grandma walks up to him, seeing him all spiffy and they have a tender moment. In the book, they never had tender moments.
The book does have the father son breakfast though, where Grandpa, who is usually dirty, sexist and crude, dresses nice and makes great conversation and wins over JR’s teacher. In the book though, this almost makes me like Grandpa even less! It’s great he showed up for JR and didn’t embarrass him, but it shows that he is capable of being a decent human being, he just chooses not to be one around his family.
Leaving New York
Not only does the movie show mom living with Grandpa the whole time, it also leaves out the fact that when JR is about eleven, they move to Arizona! He comes back to Manhasset for the summers, but during the school year is in Arizona with his mom and she stays there for the rest of the book pretty much.
I liked this aspect of the book, because I too am from New York and then when I was a kid we moved to Arizona! We even moved to around the same area JR does. I do wish they would have shown his mom getting her own place, but it makes sense the movie skipped him being in Arizona.
In Arizona, JR starts working at a bookstore when he is in high school and the two men who run the store take JR under their wing and “assign” him various books to read and help him as he prepares to apply to Yale. I really liked these two guys, Bill and Bud, and was sad they weren’t in the movie. The movie instead has Charlie be the one who gives him all sorts of books to read.
Charlie was definitely a word man; however he never gave books to JR to read and the only book in the bar was the dictionary. They called it the “book of words” and Charlie would often use big words, though it came across that he did so in order to make himself feel superior to others. The bar was intellectual though and was even called Dickens, after Charles Dickens. Its named was later changed to Publicans.
Charlie is the owner of the bar in the movie, but in the book, he was a bartender and the bar owner was named Steve.
The movie shows Charlie stepping up and filling the father role for JR. In the book, he didn’t start really connecting with JR until JR was around eleven. When he was in Manhasset for the summer, his mom was worried he would be getting bored or lonely and asked Charlie to hang out with him. Charlie then invited JR to the beach and almost every day that summer he would go with Charlie and guys from the bar to the beach, then stop by the bar on the way home. He wasn’t allowed in the bar at nighttime though.
The various men from the bar all had an impact on JR. In the movie we have Charlie doing a “wordy gurdy” and JR knows the answer. In the book it was another guy who was doing the word puzzle, and JR did know the answers but he was like 12 by that time. The guys were impressed, but it wasn’t like the movie where JR is only like six getting the answers right and acting like JR is a prodigy.
In the book, Steve eventually dies, and everything changes. Charlie, who was known for being a bit of a grump to his customers, becomes down right mean and is fired when he gets a job at a different bar. He then disappears and at the time the book was written, no one knew what happened to him.
Steve isn’t in the movie at all, but in real life he was the charismatic owner of Publicans. He had a great smile, made nicknames for everyone, and was the light of Publicans. At one point he opens a second bar in the city and spends less time in Manhasset as he works at this new bar.
At some point in the late ‘80’s there is a stock market crash and Steve’s second bar closes and Steve is in a lot of debt. He starts drinking more and the guys at Publicans start commenting on how much he has been drinking. As JR writes, if the guys at Publicans are noticing how much someone is drinking, that’s saying a lot. Steve also loses his teeth because the alcohol has rotted them and he now wears dentures. One night he is drinking at his bar and he is cut off. This of course enrages him to be cut off in his own bar. He is then walked home. It is learned the next day that when Steve got home, he fell, was taken to the hospital and is in a coma. He dies soon after. His death forever changes Publicans and his wife runs it for a while before selling it.
Steve’s death is a wakeup call to JR, who is an alcoholic himself at this point.
At the end of the book, it is over ten years later, and he goes to Manhasset. An old friend offers him a drink and he tells him he is sober now. The book then reads,
“I didn’t go into a long explanation. I didn’t want to list all the reasons that drinking—along with smoking and gambling and most other vices—had lost its appeal after I left Publicans. I didn’t want to tell Jimbo that sobering up had felt like growing up, and vice versa. I didn’t want to say that drinking and trying felt like opposite impulses, that when I stopped the one I automatically started the other. I didn’t want to say that sometimes, late at night, remembering Steve, I got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, because I wondered if he’d died for our sins. Had Steve lived, I’d have gone on living in his bar, and maybe a bar in Manhasset wasn’t the best place for me after all. An old-timer at Publicans used to tell me that drinking is the only thing you don’t get better at the more you do it, and when I left Publicans the sensibleness of that statement came home to me at last. I didn’t say any of this to Jimbo because I didn’t know how. I still don’t. Deciding to quit drinking was the easiest thing I ever did. Describing how I did it, and why, and whether or not I will drink again, is much harder.”
JR becomes obsessed with the bar at a young age because how “manly” it is and at a young age he was on the lookout for father figures. Once he is drinking age (which in New York in 1982, 18 was the legal drinking age) he starts going to Publicans every night. It isn’t just about the drinking, but the bonding with the men who work there who he has known since he was a kid. He also befriends the regulars that are there almost every night.
When at Yale, he is struggling and thinking of Publicans is a comfort, “…knowing that as surely as Yale would reject me, Publicans would accept me. If I couldn’t have the light and truth of Yale, I could always count on the dark truth of the bar.”
After learning he can’t be a reporter for the Times he continues being a copyboy and starts drinking even more. Then as said, Steve’s death really changes his perspective and makes him realize he is wasting his life. “After Steve’s death I couldn’t stop hearing his voice asking: Are we hiding from life or courting death? And what’s the difference?”
As he reflects on the bar that raised him, at the end of the book he says, “I felt grateful for every minute I’d spent in that bar, even the ones I regretted. I knew this was a contradiction, but it was no less true for being so.”
I sometimes get annoyed when recovering alcoholics reminisce fondly on their drinking days, as if they should look back only with regret and sorrow for the choices they made. But honestly, that’s unrealistic because let’s admit it, you can have a lot of fun while being under the influence. There was a time in my life when I was regularly doing drugs, and even though I have no interest in that life anymore, there are certain memories of that time that I look back on fondly. There are of course also memories I look back on with embarrassment and regret, but I can’t deny that I had some good times as well.
Even though it annoyed me that for most of the book he is sharing stories of things the guys did while drunk in a lighthearted, fun way, I was glad the book comes around to the final epiphany that living your life at a bar isn’t a life well lived. Of course, he looks back fondly though, because those are the guys that raised him. The men in his life that taught him how to change a tire, that read over his work and gave him tips, that gave him advice on love and heart break, were there for him to celebrate his successes and mourn with him over his failures. Or at least make jokes about his failures which he was able to laugh at.
Having said that, the bar had its dark side. For example, when he achieved something impressive, some men in the bar felt inferior and made their insecurities clear by kind of bullying and belittling JR, causing him to downplay his achievements.
Near the end, there is a guy who works at the bar that flies off the handle and says how he has never liked JR and starts to drunkenly strangle him. JR writes, “Even as Smelly wrung my neck I didn’t hate him. I loved Smelly no less than I loved all the men in that bar, and as I began to lose consciousness, I felt hatred only for myself, because I loved him, loved any man who paid attention to me, even when that attention took the form of murder.”
Obviously, JR idolized the men from the bar because his own dad wasn’t around. As in the movie, his dad is a radio DJ and JR will search the radio trying to find his dad’s station.
He sees him here and there as a kid, but it isn’t often by any means and in real life he really did claim that he had ordered a hit on his mom, as well as threatening to kidnap JR.
When JR gets older, his mom will share different stories about his dad, including the fact that he once tried to kill her.
He sees his dad at some point before going to Yale I believe and the dad tells him he is sober.
Years later, like sometime after his New York Times days I think, he sees his and they get lunch. JR can’t stop thinking about how great a drink would be right now but feels he can’t drink in front of his father since his dad is sober.
To JR’s surprise, the dad ends up ordering a drink. The book reads, “… by the time my father had enjoyed half a cocktail, he’d begun to enjoy me. Suddenly he was responsive. He was listening. More, he was offering advice, making me laugh, doing his funny voices. Before my eyes he was turning into a different man, into one of the men at Publicans, and so I urged him to enjoy another cocktail. Hell, I told the waitress, as if the thought had just occurred to me, I think I’d enjoy a cocktail myself.”
JR ends up staying with his dad for a week or so and they become drinking buddies. Until the dad takes him to see his girlfriend and her daughter. JR and the girlfriend are out of the room as she gives him a tour of the house and when they come back in the living room, the dad is angry about something. He becomes violent and comes at JR with a knife. No one ends up getting hurt, and the dad drives off. JR asks the women if she can drive him to the airport (after first getting his stuff from his dad’s apartment). He says he felt they were in a scary movie because they kept looking over their shoulders.
Years later he hears about his dad’s death and though he isn’t able to bring himself to attend the funeral, he does go to his gravesite later on and in a way is able to be at peace about his father.
The movie has a scene similar to this one, but JR isn’t an alcoholic in the movie, so he isn’t drinking with his dad. Also, when he becomes violent with the girlfriend, JR ends up calling the cops and the dad is arrested.
This was a great scene in the movie, or scenes, because after this, he then goes home to his mom. As he sees him mom excited about a job interview, she has, and her happiness and love for him kind of conveys without words, the sentiment about his mother that is expressed at the end of the book. Those two scenes, side by side, was my favorite moment from the movie.
Power of Books
One relationship he has with a regular is with a guy called Bob the Cop. Bob feels out of place when talk of books and literature comes up because he doesn’t read. He confides in JR and asks if he could borrow books from him, so that he can participate in those conversations.
Thanks to Bill and Bud, and Yale, JR has a great love and respect for books. He doesn’t like the thought of loaning his books out, even if he isn’t currently reading them and the book reads, “I wanted to explain that books didn’t have the same explicit purpose as tools, that there wasn’t a clear difference between when books were in use and when they weren’t. I took pleasure from their presence, enjoyed seeing them lined up on my shelves and floors. They were the only redeeming feature of my squalid apartment. My books kept me company, cheered me up. Furthermore, because every book I’d owned as a boy was mildewed from the basement or missing its front cover, I was fussy about my books. I didn’t write in the margins or dog ear the pages, and I never loaned them, especially not the first editions given to me by the editors of the Times Book Review when I did my little author interviews. But I couldn’t say any of this to Bob the Cop because it would have sounded ungenerous, so I told him that he was welcome to stop by the next day and help himself to whatever books I wasn’t using.”
Another book related quote, is when a guy walks up to JR in the bar while he is reading and asks what the book is about. JR is feeling moody and snaps back, “I hate when people ask what a book is about. People who read for plot, people who suck out the story like the cream filling in an Oreo, should stick to comic strips and soap operas. What’s it about? Every book worth a damn is about emotions and love and death and pain. It’s about words. It’s about a man dealing with life. Okay?”
He apologizes right after, but as pretentious as that quote is, I quite liked it.
Another quote that he is told from Bill, one of the guys who runs the bookstore reads, “Every book is a miracle,” Bill said. “Every book represents a moment when someone sat quietly—and that quiet is part of the miracle, make no mistake—and tried to tell the rest of us a story.”
In the movie he has his Yale roommate whom he becomes friends with; and while he had close friends from Yale, one friend he had throughout his life was his cousin McGraw.
McGraw and his mom moved to Arizona, which is why JR and his mom ended up moving there as well. Eventually McGraw’s family went back to New York, but JR and his mom stayed. McGraw gets into a college on a baseball scholarship, and around this time he visits New York when JR is a copyboy at the Times. The book tells us that the Times hired copyboys under the belief that they could potentially be promoted to reporter. However, as time went on, they stopped promoting the copyboys. JR learns this and stops trying at his job, realizing he won’t have the chance of being offered a position.
McGraw comes to visit and JR sees the effort McGraw puts into baseball and is inspired. He decides to be the best copyboy he can be. The people at the Times are so impressed, that they give him a month trial run as a reporter which by then was unheard of. As the movie shows, he ultimately isn’t given the job of reporter, but the fact that he was inspired to actually try, even if being a copyboy wasn’t his dream, putting in the effort made the editors give him a shot.
In the movie, it ends with JR driving to New York to stay with his buddy from Yale in Charlie’s car he has given him. It is a very positive ending, and in general is just a feel-good movie. In the book, he goes to Colorado to live with McGraw and another friend. Then in the epilogue it is after the 2001 attacks and we hear what happened in life since then. The book has plenty of heavy moments, but the ending is still positive and uplifting. Maybe even more so than the movie. The harsh realities of the book, make the positives all the more powerful. The movie was too much “roses and sunshine” I think. Sure, you have the scenes with the dad that get some intensity in it, but that’s basically it. I thought they would have Charlie die in the end, taking the place of Steve’s death, but they didn’t.
Oh, and speaking of Steve, in the movie it shows he gets in a car accident. In the book, his mom is the one that is in a car accident at one point. She also had to get a tumor removed at one point, which the movie shows.
Book vs Movie
I enjoyed the movie but having read the book made me feel unsatisfied. I actually think it would have benefited from being another thirty minutes longer, or at least another fifteen minutes. That way they could have included other relationships he had with men outside of Charlie.
The book wins here, it is more heartfelt, while also showing the sometimes ugly truth. The movie also gets rid of JR’s own struggles with alcohol. His alcoholism isn’t as dramatic as other books show addiction, but I liked kind of liked that. This is a memoir I would recommend! The movie is free on Amazon prime, and there are certainly worse ways to spend an hour 45, so if you have amazon I would recommend the movie despite my complaints about it.