This Week's Reads

J.R. Moehringer, Charles Burns, and Joan Didion.

The Tender Bar

By J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion, $23.95) Los Angeles Times writer J.R. Moehringer's misty memoir could have been titled About a Bar, with him as a Long Island cousin to About a Boy's fatherless preteen and his favorite tavern in the Hugh Grant role. As a kid, Moehringer saw the bar, Dickens (later renamed Publicans), as "my father, its dozens of men melding into one enormous male eye looking over my shoulder." This awkward metaphor presages Bar's failure as a meditation on masculinity and fatherhood; yet once the author has you beside him at Dickens, eavesdropping on the barflies' salty banter and inhaling their beery breath, the bar itself becomes a character, and the book takes off. True to his background as a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, Moehringer is at his best when he's telling other people's stories. He begins with an interesting pocket history of the tavern, going back to Chaucer's England, then segues into the rise of Dickens, whose Runyonesque regulars (Bobo, Joey D, Colt, Fuckembabe, et al.), along with his uncle Charlie, help raise him in lieu of his deadbeat dad. Their colorful exchanges as they watch young Moehringer matriculate at Yale and pursue journalism are more rewarding by far than the author's belabored observations about the value of father figures. His worst offense occurs when he subjects us to the so-called wisdom of a pedantic priest, who tells him: "People just don't understand how many men it takes to build one good man. Next time you're in Manhattan and you see one of those mighty skyscrapers going up, pay attention to how many men are engaged in the enterprise." Moehringer presents this homespun advice without commentary; he's so enraptured by the notion of surrogate fatherhood that he refuses to filter the preaching of yet another male role model. It takes a village—OK, OK, we get it. Even Boy, in which a dead duck served as a comic prop, was subtler. Fittingly, Dickens comes to Moehringer's rescue. His decision to make it the leitmotif of the memoir pays off nicely in the moving epilogue, which re-examines the characters in post-9/11 New York. A few perish in the towers; others simply disappear. Yet when the author, now an established West Coast newsman with his hard-drinking days behind him, returns to his beloved bar, he finds it intact—under new ownership, to be sure, but still serving pints, anchoring the neighborhood, and giving him what he needs. NEAL SCHINDLER J.R. Moehringer will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 4; and at College Inn (4000 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Mon., Nov. 7. Black Hole

By Charles Burns (Pantheon, $24.95) High schools in America are snake pits of emotional torment and solitary despair. Or so I'm told. I went to an American high school, but a long time ago, and I was so remote from any contact with my peers that they could all have been utterly, miserably suicidal, for all I knew. I thought they seemed pretty smug, to the extent that I thought about them at all. Charles Burns went to high school 25 years after I did, in the mid-1970s, in Seattle. And if the thinly disguised Roosevelt High he depicts in his new graphic novel, Black Hole, reflects anything but Burns' own misery, it must have been a nightmarish place to be. For the first time, I dimly understand how awful everything can be when you're young, uncertain, scared, and sex-haunted; when friends can be scarier than enemies, because you know to watch out for enemies, but friends can betray you; when your own rapidly changing body can seem like a disgusting, oozing, pustulating monster that has somehow devoured whole the kid you used to be. Throw in the easy availability of any number of drugs (barely a factor in high-school life in my day), and you have a recipe for nightmare. As anyone who has admired Burns' unique graphic style over the years knows, nightmare is central to his work. But intentionally or not, he's nearly always allowed his readers an avenue of escape: His vision is so extreme, so literally black-and-white, so Halloween grotesque, so stylistically distanced from conventional illustration, that one could always look at it as deliberately over-the-top. Black Hole is different. It's settled in, sodden with, the drab settings of ordinary teen life: the cafeteria, the hall, the mini- mart; the lonely bedroom, the runaway's crash pad, the drug dealer's ratty front room, the musty borrowed bedroom at the wan party in a temporarily parentless house. Only one thing separates this drabness from that of everyday—Burns' teens are suffering, most of them, from a kind of plague. All you need to do to get it is have sex, but what it will do to you is never certain. It doesn't kill, it doesn't even necessarily disfigure, at first; but once you have it, you're an outsider and doomed. If this sounds somewhat familiar to Burns addicts, it's because the separate chapters of this book have been appearing off and on since 1995 as stand-alone paperbacks issued by Fantagraphics. But because each substory started so casually and went to hell so precipitously, one could easily overlook its connection to a larger whole, and hence avoid the relentless closing-in on the characters of their collective nasty fate. United at last, the tales that make up Black Hole let the reader off the hook no more than they do their characters. There's not a laugh in its 368 (unnumbered) pages, and the cumulative pressure of watching so many otherwise ordinary individuals go down the tube, unable to help themselves or one another, is remarkable. For the first time, Burns' Grand Guignol doesn't seem a bit extreme. This is the way this world is, it suggests. Your experience may differ. ROGER DOWNEY Charles Burns will appear at the Center on Contemporary Art (410 Dexter Ave. N., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Wed., Nov. 9. The Year of Magical Thinking

By Joan Didion (Knopf, $23.95) The prospect of reviewing even the discarded sentences of Joan Didion should daunt any writer worth their weight in bookmarks. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album . . . for God's sake, the woman practically defined literary journalism while at the same time showing how the personal and political might be wed in a way that transcends feminist platitude. Her new memoir is a meditation on grief and mourning. In December of 2003, her husband of 40 years, screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne, slumped over in his reading chair and died of a heart attack. In addressing this loss, Didion explains how grief is its own brand of insanity. In her case, it centers around two impulses that are at once irrational and intuitive. First is her idea that affirming her husband's death is akin to betrayal. This prevents her from removing his voice from the answering machine message. Second is the notion—which she knows is delusional—that he might return. Forget donating his clothes to charity; that would symbolically deny such a possibility. As Didion discovers, mourning is not a staring contest with mortality so much as an epiphany of powerlessness. Her husband is gone. Her adult daughter, Quintana, is comatose in the hospital with pneumonia and septic shock. And there's nothing she can do. This is all the more startling when class is thrown into the mix. Describing the confident "habit of mind" of her milieu, she writes: "They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice." Of course, Didion knows better than to "believe absolutely" that such privilege can trump disease and death; it's just another comfort she casts away. What's remarkable about Magical Thinking is that it offers no magical answers. Didion deploys everyone from Freud to W.H. Auden to medical research in an effort to come to terms with her loss, but nothing really bails her out. (In a tragic footnote, though not addressed in the book, Quintana died just before its publication.) What's left are her small steps to maintain dignity: hosting Christmas Eve dinner or meeting a deadline without her husband's editorial guidance. Death may not become her, but it certainly doesn't tarnish Joan Didion's unique, powerful voice. JOHN DICKER Joan Didion will appear at Seattle Central Library (1000 Fourth Ave., 206-386-4636), 7 p.m. Wed., Nov. 9.

 
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