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Alliteration, Allusion, and Repetition in J.R. Moehringer’s “The Tender Bar”

October 19, 2008 by · 1 comment

Brian Russell


J.R. Moehringer’s lyrical and deeply moving memoir, “The Tender Bar,” employs great use of wordplay – including literary allusions, alliteration, repetition, and reversals. The title itself is the first example of Moehringer’s love of words and wordplay in that it is a play on the word “bartender,” flipping the two words that make it up and, in so doing, creating a powerful and unexpected image – that of a “tender” bar.

Upon first reading the title, I conjured an image of a caring or concerned bar, but while reading the book, I also recalled another meaning of “tender” that applies: one who looks after someone or something. Both meanings apply to Moehringer’s title.

Moehringer employs repetition throughout his memoir and almost seems to announce his intention to do so by opening his book with a paragraph that consists of six sentences beginning with the phrase, “We went there,” before ending with the sentence, “Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.”

Another example of his use of repetition to hammer home a point is demonstrated in this sentence: “For the first twenty-five years of my life everyone I knew either sent me to the bar, drove me to the bar, accompanied me to the bar, rescued me from the bar, or was in the bar when I arrived, as if waiting for me since the day I was born.”

The phrase “the bar” appears five times in that sentence. In a later chapter, describing his cousin McGraw, he writes, “McGraw wouldn’t talk about his father, and wouldn’t talk about why he wouldn’t talk about his father.” Moehringer’s use of repetition not only helps him make a particular point, but it also often creates a cadence that pulls the reader into the author’s world.

Moehringer seems to take great delight in his literary and cultural allusions. For instance, early in the memoir when writing about Steve, the owner of the titular bar, which was named Dickens at that time, he writes: “In every venture Steve was confident of success – confidence was his most attractive quality and his tragic flaw – but with Dickens he surpassed his greatest expectations.”

One needn’t have read “Great Expectations” to understand the allusion. Describing a dean at Yale, he writes, “He looked like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and I yearned for a man to tell me I had nothing to fear but fear itself.”

And, in another literary allusion that also employs multiple alliterations, he writes, “The men cared about McGraw, not ‘Macbeth,’ so I smoked and sulked and signified nothing.” How many authors have you encountered who manage to invoke Shakespeare and Faulkner in the same sentence?

Finally, one need not be familiar with the works of Flaubert to grasp the meaning of, “When we did find something to write, we polished every sentence like Flaubert, and prayed that the editors might see some ray of promise in our work.” The context implies the meaning. And, for readers who are familiar with Flaubert’s endless struggle for the exact right word, the sentence is even more satisfying.

Moehringer uses alliteration frequently, as when he writes, “At eight years old I began to dream of going to Dickens as other boys dream of visiting Disneyland.” His embrace of wordplay, alliteration, and surprising turns or reversals is sometimes deadly serious, as in this sentence: “Long before it legally served me, the bar saved me.” He enjoys the oxymoron, as when he writes: “At Dickens everyone would feel special, though no one would stand out.” Recalling his stuttering Grandpa, who blamed his stuttering on the Jesuit teachers who beat him when he couldn’t memorize a word, he writes, “Priests made him love words, and made it hard for him to say words. My first example of irony.”

Time and again Moehringer writes sentences in which the ending phrase consciously relates back to an opening phrase, as when he writes quite simply, “To be a man, a boy must see a man.” Worried that he wouldn’t get accepted at Yale, he writes, “If I couldn’t have the light and truth of Yale, I could always count on the dark truth of the bar.” While he’s struggling with failing to be promoted from copyboy to reporter at “The New York Times,” he observes, “They saw me at the bar night after night, putting more effort into the Times crossword than I put into anything I wrote for the ‘Times’ news pages.”

In this extensive passage that appears late in the memoir, Moehringer luxuriates in his playful, though serious, prose:

“I saw that we must lie to ourselves now and then, tell ourselves that we’re capable and strong, that life is good and hard work will be rewarded, and then we must try to make our lies come true. This is our work, our salvation, and this link between lying and trying was one of my mother’s many gifts to me, the truth that always lay just beneath her lies.”

Those two sentences contain reversals, rhyme, alliteration, and the playful placement of the word “lay” in such close proximity to the word “lies.” He concludes his processing of his new understanding of his mother – and by extension, his entire childhood – with: “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.”

Anyone who appreciates strong and graceful prose with an ear for the playful will find much to appreciate in “The Tender Bar.”

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