I did this in the wrong order (if there is such a thing) I watched the film of the book, before reading the book. For J.R.Moehringer, books are holy things. And I know where he lives because I’ve read the book. F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby Egg territory. J.R’s hometown, Manhasset, Long Island. Sigourney Weaver took her stage name from the guest list of Gatsby’s fictional legendary parties, which the whole of New York’s well-heeled attended. Gatsby wanted to win back Daisy Buchanan, who hid behind the money and killed somebody when drunk driving, which wasn’t really her fault.
J.R.’s Daisy is Sidney. Sidney is the one. J.R. finds that most of the men in the bar have a Sidney locked away in their soul. In the film, she’s black. But in the book, she’s more Farah Fawcett. Charlie’s Angels were beautiful as could be, but Farah was that level above. Sidney is that level. But we don’t get to her until 200 pages in. She’s waiting to disillusion him at Harvard and not Yale, where they met.
Maya Angelou, Human Family, gets it right:
I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the word
But not one common man
I know ten thousand women
called Jane or Mary Jane
but I’ve never seen two
who really were the same
…We seek success in Finland
are born and die in Maine,
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.
Uncle Charlie is a playboy in the film with a fine head of hair. He, it seems, owns Dickens, but in the book, Steve owns Dickens, later called The Publican. It makes little difference. The bar had been there since the end of Prohibition, perhaps earlier. For regulars, it was the place to be. For irregulars, it was the place to be seen. Grandpa’s ramshackle dwelling provided a safety net, but Uncle Charlie and Dickens was home. At eighteen he’d a driving license and that was his entry card for a world he breathed in every day.
‘We went there for everything we needed. We went there when we were thirsty, of course, and when hungry and when dead tired. We went there when happy and to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage, just before. We went there when we didn’t know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.’
Seven-year-old J.R. in 1972 has the gift of wordy-gurdy and is searching for a father-figure. He does make gravity defying leaps for a poor boy, getting into Yale for example, and getting a job, as copyboy, in The New York Times. Steady as she goes, his life pitches and flings him curve balls. I laughed aloud as his Auntie roared at his nephew McGraw about how he had to get an operation and get back into professional baseball. He was on the lip of achievement and a big money deal, but now he was a loser back in Dickens, with J.R. Every bar has its story and story-tellers. J.R. loves the older guys and they, in turn, revere the owner of the pub, Steve, whose smile brings warmth to their lives. Only later does the reader find out about Steve’s plastic teeth.
We bring back the past by not forgetting it, and forgiving yourself your youth. A coming-of-age drama written with warmth, but also understanding. When the party is over, it’s over. Few of us get the life we deserve. But there’s a poignant note, 9/11 2001. His mum phoned from Arizona. Two adults watching planes crash into the World Trade Center. Peter Taylor, who’d tended bar in Dickens, one of the dead. Another forty-nine from home in the debris of Ground Zero. Amen.