Later, at the Bar
by Rebecca Barry
Published by Simon & Schuster
224 pages, 2007
Writer Walks Into a Bar?
Reviewed by David Abrams
The literature of alcohol is a tricky field for new writers to enter. There's the constant risk of slipping into lazy clichés as well-worn as the overlapping water rings on a bar (see what I mean?). Then, too, so many masters of fiction have already gone before and blazed a brilliant trail -- William Kennedy's Ironweed, Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," and nearly everything written by John Cheever. In the hands of the right writer, booze-soaked fiction can be -- yes, I'll say it -- intoxicating.
Now along comes Rebecca Barry with Later, at the Bar, a collection of linked stories which revolve around the barflies of Lucy's Tavern in upstate New York. More than a credible example of "Lost Weekend" Fiction, Barry's debut succeeds largely on the merits of her pared-down style and her obvious love for the characters she's created. Most of these people are on slippery slopes of self-pity and regret, but Barry tenderly gives them occasional glimmers of redemption and hope.
The small-town universe of Later, at the Bar is rife with the kind of drama found in soap operas and country-western songs: failed marriages, one-night stands, terminal illness, scrapes with the law, loneliness, bitterness and pent-up anger. The characters converge at Lucy's Tavern, but Barry does not confine the action to just that dim, smoky interior. The opening story (unfortunately the weakest of the bunch) tells us that Lucy's is a place where "bad behavior within reason was perfectly acceptable," a place where "most people in town came to lick their wounds or someone else's, or to give in to the night and see what would happen."
In the course of the book, we meet several recurring characters. There's advice columnist Linda Hartley, "who wouldn't set foot in the bar without high heels and a soft sweater"; there's Grace Meyers who "was nice to look at in an unreachable way"; and there's Grace's ex-husband Harlin who promised himself when he got out of jail "he would live a quieter, more peaceful life ... by drinking at home, counting to ten before hitting anyone, and staying away from women, his ex-wife Grace especially, but all other women as well."
Even as Harlin says this, we know he'll break that vow the first lonely Saturday night he ends up back at Lucy's Tavern slumped on his stool and desperately throwing pick-up lines in Grace's direction. Harlin is the most interesting character in the book's large cast. Here he is, wallowing in nostalgia:
This part of the world was changing, Harlin thought. When he and Cyrus were young, it had been full of cornfields and livestock and fantastic drunks like Harlin's dad, who jumped through plate-glass windows and set fire to abandoned houses. Now the landscape was being eaten up by new houses big enough for three families, with treeless front lawns and oversize plastic play sets.
Harlin, Grace, Linda, Cyrus, Hank, Bill, Benny, Jimmy and all the rest always return to Lucy's Tavern because it is comfortable, familiar and always ready to provide solace in an ever-shifting world. Sometimes that comfort comes from a shot glass and sometimes from a sympathetic listening ear at the next barstool.
Barry knows when to let the story spin itself out at its own pace, and when to jab the reader with a punchy sentence like "The trouble with his new wife, [Harlin] said, was that she had terrible taste in men." She even gets good mileage out of hackneyed clichés. Like the country songs that sob from the jukebox, all the familiar love-em-and-leave-em stories are on parade here. Yet, in Barry's hands, the time-worn feels fresh.
One story, "Men Shoot Things to Kill Them," has its emotional climax when Harlin and his brother Cyrus come across a pair of injured Canada geese in the middle of the road. The fact that the birds mate for life is not lost on either man -- both of whom find themselves unable to stay attached to one woman for much more than a year at a time. Harlin and Cyrus go limp with indecision: should they put the birds out of their misery or let nature take its course? It's up to Cyrus' ex-wife Janet to take action; she gets a shotgun and shoots the mortally-wounded female, leading Harlin to conclude, "Men shoot things to kill them, women shoot things to save them."
Later, at the Bar is full of gem-like moments where characters, with nothing better to do than drink and think, have a knack for saying what they really feel, no matter the consequences (and the stakes are usually very high for these characters). One barfly neatly expresses the sum total of the stories here when she remarks, "Say what you will about drunks, but no one will love you like they can."
Ultimately, Later, at the Bar is less about inebriation than it is grasping at second, third and even fourth chances for better lives. This is inspiring fiction which just happens to be set in a room filled with smoke, sad songs and slurred words. | July 2007
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.