“Kid’s a scribbler…”
Film adaptations are tricky. How can you boil down 400 or more pages of story, themes, and character development into a two hour film without losing the impact of what was on the page?
Anyone that has had their favorite book turned into a movie knows the feeling of being simultaneously excited and anxious, hopeful and terrified, at what the outcome will be.
Now it’s my turn, as the film adaptation of The Tender Bar, the book that completely changed my life, is set to be released in theaters and on Amazon Prime Video.
From the trailers, it appears as if the story is basically the same but the details have been unsurprisingly Hollywoodized. I imagine some of the rough parts have been smoothed out, the harsh truths softened for a movie audience. Ben Affleck may be my favorite actor but he does not look like the Uncle Charlie that Moehringer describes in the book, a man who suffered from alopecia and never left the house without a hat and dark glasses, which made him look like the Invisible Man.
Honestly, the film adaptation of The Tender Bar could be the worst movie of all time and I won’t care, not just because I don’t buy into critical reviews and Rotten Tomatoes scores, but because nothing can change the book.
James M. Cain, when asked about the film adaptations of his books, had the greatest response possible (it’s so good it’s been attributed to many other authors since):
“People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf.”
The beauty of the book is not only in its story, but in its language. Moehringer’s prose is gorgeous without being flashy or overwrought. Even when parts of the story didn’t resonate with me, the gorgeous writing carried me. The New York Times is one of countless publications that praised the book, writing that it is “soaked and swaddled in the saloon poetry that makes the best of The Tender Bar so priceless.”
J.R. Moehringer is one of the finest writers in America. His newspaper and magazine features have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, a film adaptation, and rave reviews for changing the narrative surrounding Alex Rodriguez (without ever quoting Rodriguez once). Yet he still remains severely underrated in the mainstream consciousness because he has repeatedly eschewed the spotlight. He ghostwrote Andre Agassi’s stellar autobiography, Open, and Phil Knight’s fantastic memoir, Shoe Dog, both without an official writing credit. It has been announced that he will also be co-writing Prince Harry’s memoir, but don’t be surprised if Moehringer’s name is nowhere to be found.
Stephen King once wrote that some books are so amazing that they make an aspiring writer stop and think, I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand. Nearly every page of The Tender Bar does that to me. Moehringer recalls that when he first encountered the work of John Cheever, “I didn’t know sentences could be made like that. Cheever did with words what [Tom] Seaver did with fastballs.” I could say the same about Moehringer himself. I’ve made peace with the fact that my writing won’t put food on the table, and when I compare how I write to how Moehringer writes, I think that’s fair. There are levels to everything.
It’s a stunning work of writing. I mean, even the acknowledgments page is profound: “Like its author, this book has been rescued many times by a number of extraordinary people.” He quotes Shakespeare and Whitman and Yeats and Rilke. The book is stacked with lines and insights that I’ve felt at one time or another but could never articulate:
- “Everyone has a holy place, a refuge, where their heart is purer, their mind clearer, where they feel closer to God or love or truth or whatever it is they happen to worship. For better or worse my holy place was Steve’s bar.”
- “At the pivotal moment of our good-bye I hadn’t said anything profound.”
- “I’d talk with the men, laugh off the cares of the day and the regrets of my life.”
- “I made a string of promises to myself.”
- “I looked around the barroom. Someone else might have seen nothing more than a random crowd of drinkers, but I saw my people.”
- “There are mistakes, and then there are mistakes.”
- “I’d 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.”
- “My problems with women stemmed from some personality defect, I feared, which I self-diagnosed as hyper-empathy. All the women who had tried to make me a man had done the opposite. This was why I had trouble approaching women. I liked them too much, and I was too much like them, to be predatory.”
- “I could always count on the dark truth of the bar.”
I’ve reached out to Moehringer several times to tell him how profoundly his book changed my life. He’s never responded, and that’s fine. I don’t expect him to. He’s already given me more than I could ever hope to receive, and for that I will be forever grateful to him.
“The classroom, I’d concluded, was not my arena. The barroom was. I decided that barrooms were the only places I was as clever as my classmates, and my classmates thought so too. When we went out drinking I could feel myself rise in their estimation.”
Of course, not all of it was applicable to my own life. The major thread running through the story is about Moehringer searching for male guidance since his father left when he was an infant. I didn’t have that issue. I had a father — a great father — so I was not yearning for a male role model.
The rest of it, though, hit me hard. The book is a love letter to both bars and books— two things I adore.
I’ve always felt like bars had a magical quality. Things happen there that don’t happen anywhere else. Many of my fondest memories of early adulthood are set in a bar and have that hazy quality of nostalgia surrounding them. On the surface, I entered them like everyone else, looking for a fun night with friends but also with an underlying desire to find something deeper — love, connection, direction, healing, even salvation.
I didn’t have just one bar that I called my own. I had several. One was a college bar. One was a local gastropub near the first house I owned. There were many others in between, all types and varieties, with all sorts of bartenders and drinkers.
I especially loved the language and rules of bars, those that were unspoken and untaught, but still learned through experience, like one Moehringer recalled that I’ve done many times myself:
“Before each man and woman sat a pile of bills. When you walk into the joint, Uncle Charlie instructed, put up your money, all your money, and let the bartender take what he needs as the night goes on. ‘It’s tradition,’ he said. ‘Protocol.’”
In addition to his love of bars and books, I related deeply to Moehringer’s experience of professional floundering and personal wandering. His journey stuck to my ribs and has stayed with me ever since because I saw so many similarities with myself.
I, too, had an awkward and ultimately futile experience with a high school dream girl. I, too, am burdened with neurotic overthinking and constant surety that the worst possible thing will happen.
I, too, am saddled with feelings of guilt and feel like everything bad that happens is karmic payback and justified retribution. I, too, was afflicted with youthful arrogance and the curse of talking too much while those around me tried to teach me things.
I, too, worried that I would “earn less than I hoped — be less than I hoped.” I, too, graduated college with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I, too, obtained my undergraduate degree and started a job that I could’ve done as a sophomore in high school. I, too, made my parent(s) nervous that I would waste any potential or talent I had.
I, too, was lost, even if I didn’t realize it.
“An old-timer used to tell me that drinking is the only thing you don’t get better at the more you do it.”
I gushed about The Tender Bar the day I finished reading it the first time. The book spoke to me more than any other written work I had ever encountered. At the time, I wrote:
“For me, The Tender Bar is a quake book. Never before have I been so enamored and moved by words on a page. [Nothing can] compare because when I read The Tender Bar, I see myself and my past and my what-if future and what was and what could have been and what never will be.”
In the years that followed, I told everyone, especially myself, that a change occurred immediately. I read that book and instantly revamped my life — lifestyle, habits, perspective, everything. That’s how I recounted it because that’s how I remembered it. My memory lied to me.
Despite what I wrote at the time, everything did not suddenly turn around in January, 2015. In fact, it actually became worse. I made worse choices, increased bad habits, moved further away from who I wanted to be.
I started a job that killed my spirit. I started to drink too much. I ate far too much. I became lethargic and sullen. I started thinking the worst about everyone and everything. I was full of self-pity. I can’t imagine how much of a misery I was to live with. The lessons I took away from the book were lost or forgotten. Instead of living the realization and perspective found at the end of the book, I was stuck living in the nadir of it, when Moehringer felt he had “been in darkness a long time.”
Eventually, I found my way back. Back into the light, where my spirits rose and my smile returned. I became healthier, more focused, and more engaged with everything around me. Ironically, as I stumbled through life, forgetting the impact of the book, it began to rattle around in my subconscious. Somehow, the more time passed and the further away I was from when I first read it, the more it spoke to me and the more it made sense to me. Of course, I didn’t realize any of this until long after it occurred, one of the benefits of hindsight.
I’ve since re-read it several times and, as great books should, it has given me something new each time. Ryan Holiday has made the point that just as no man can step in the same river twice, we never read the same book twice — because we’re different and so what we take from the book is different, making even the book itself, in some ways, different. That’s absolutely true for me and The Tender Bar.
Bars and books. Books and bars.
In the prologue, Moehringer writes that the bar saved him twice — once by embracing him as a boy, and again by abandoning him as a young man.
A bar saved J.R. Moehringer’s life. His book saved mine.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.