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A Pick From Pearl

J. R. Moehringer's The Tender Bar sets an extremely high bar (pun intended) for memoirs. To me, his book ranks right up there next to such entries as Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Haven Kimmel's A Girl named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. Moehringer's childhood includes a mostly-absent father (a radio disc jockey, whom he knows primarily as "The Voice"), a mother struggling with three jobs to make ends meet, and a series of quirky and crotchety relatives. Born in 1965, J. R. grew up in Manhasset, a Long Island suburb of Manhattan, in his grandparent's house, then moved to Arizona with his mother as a teen, later graduated from Yale, worked at The New York Times and other papers (and won a Pulitzer Prize), and now lives in Denver. But those are just the broad outlines of this remarkable book. What gives it both its charm and its substance are the descriptions of the people who most influenced him, including his mother (I've seldom read as loving a picture of a mother/son relationship); his remarkably dysfunctional extended family (especially his irascible grandfather); the bookstore managers in Arizona who gave him his first literary education; and especially his uncle Phil and the other men who worked and/or hung out at Publicans, a bar exactly 142 steps from where Moehringer lived on Long Island. As Moehringer brings these men to life--the men who were stand-ins for his absent father and who became his role models, I felt as though I had known them my whole life, too. Moehringer tells us that he always wanted to write a novel about Publicans, but I think he's done something even better here.