Open by Andre Agassi (Knopf, 2009) and The Tender Bar by JR Moehringer (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005)
At the end of Andre Agassi’s superbly written memoir Open, there are two pages of acknowledgements. In those pages, it becomes clear that there is another writer behind this extraordinary autobiography: a man who goes by the name of JR Moehringer. But his name is not on the cover.
You are unlikely to have heard of him, even though he’s won a Pulitzer Prize and written his own memoir, The Tender Bar. But rest assured of one thing: he can write.
Agassi writes that he was reading Moehringers’s ‘staggering’ memoir during his final US Open in 2006 and that he phoned him to request a meeting after his first round match. They meet, Moehringer moves to Vegas, where Agassi lives, and 250 hours of interview time and a friendship later, this sports memoir of note emerges.
First things first: you don’t have to love tennis to appreciate this book. The story of the man who claims he hated tennis, forced by a manic father to face his demonic ball-machine (aka The Dragon) from the age of seven, has all the makings of a tragedy from the start. Physically, he barely survives: there are several passages where you wince at what he does to himself in the name of the game. The very first chapter, called The End, is a case in point.
Emotionally, he’s not always entirely balanced either – witness the weirdness of his first marriage to Brooke Shields. But what becomes abundantly clear is that his second marriage to Steffi Graf saved him in many ways. As did his remarkable support team in the form of Gil Reyes and Brad Gilbert.
Some have called this biography ‘risible’. Perhaps they had some sort of moral axe to grind about the famous ‘crystal meth’ episode – small fry compared to the drug debacles now common in professional sports. To me there may be the odd laugh and yes, Agassi is a showman of note, but it becomes increasingly clear that much of that posturing was simply a search for identity and meaning on a circuit that is viciously gruelling. It is no wonder Esquire named it one of the Top 30 Sports Memoirs of All Time last year. It absolutely deserves to be right up there.
So what of Agassi’s ghost collaborator’s memoir, The Tender Bar? Well, clearly JR Moehringer is nowhere near as famous as Agassi, nor is he a sportsman of any sort. What he excels at – and this is both the heart and the horror of the book – is drinking. This is because his primary father figure is his Uncle Charlie, who presides over a bar called Publicans in his home town of Manhasset, Long Island. And seeking father figures in the absence of his own equally dissolute DJ father, aka The Voice, he ends up spending a lot of his time at Publicans, or with the lovingly characterised and eclectic denizens of this eponymous 'tender bar'. These same characters stand witness, together with his fairly crazy family, to his surprising progression to Harvard on a scholarship and his rather less surprising descent from it to selling tableware and, to be fair, eventually becoming a trainee journalist of sorts at the New York Times.
For anyone who has had to deal with addiction in their lives, this may be a hard read. Not only are Uncle Charlie and his entourage all alcoholics, but it becomes pretty clear that Moehringer is too. Indeed, one of the great sadnesses of the story is the loss of his first great love to her assertion that she "had been apprehensive about a young man so enthralled by a bar". It’s not difficult to agree with Moehringer’s own assertion that her apprehension was understandable.
But don’t be too put off. The writing is excellent, the schadenfreude touching. In particular, you feel for his utterly devoted mother, to whom the book is dedicated, and who must have struggled, at times, to make sense of her son and his desperate search for alcoholic father figures to guide him. A search that, to mangle Auden’s definition of poetry, ultimately leaves one with “the clear impression of mixed feelings”. The result may not have the breathless pace and drama of Open but it does have a tender semi-Dickensian heart with a range of quirky characters to which you do genuinely warm. But the chill of his addiction – and that of many of his father figures – is never far away.