Why are there so many bars in my novel?
Novels are long, and you have to fill them with stuff, and that stuff tends to accumulate in patterns, laying bare your preoccupations. If you’re hung up on something, there’s a good chance it will appear, somehow, in the production of three to four hundred pages of fiction. For instance, Wallace had tennis; Joyce had meat. (“Steak, kidney, liver, mashed at meat fit for princes.”) Rereading my debut novel, The Grand Tour, I’ve discovered I have an obsession, too: I like bars.
Even for a novel about an alcoholic writer and bartender, my book has a lot of bars. Sixteen, in fact: sixteen instances in which characters appear at sixteen different bars. Seemingly at every chance, Richard, The Grand Tour’s protagonist, walks into bars, sits down, and drinks. I knew the book featured a lot of bars, but sixteen is more than I’d imagined, and it raises some troubling questions. Whence these many saloons? Whither these sundry watering holes? And what’s wrong with diners, or teahouses, or hookah lounges?
Although we know better than to connect details in novels to details about their authors, I am, as the author of this particular novel, under no such prohibition. The truth is, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars. I tended bar for years, at different places, and I’ve been going to them most of my adult life. I do love bars. I even love the Toby Keith song “I Love This Bar.” But I also love the Smiths and Mexican food, and neither Morrissey nor carnitas verde make a single appearance in my novel. Why is my fictional universe so dominated by bars?
My friend Tricia owns a bar in North Carolina, and she has a longstanding house rule: no laptop on the bartop. She said it fouls up the vibe of the place—which seems completely reasonable until you consider that, in 2016, there is no other place where a rule like this would or could conceivably exist, except a movie theater and possibly a funeral home. A bar is one of the only places where people go to be around other people—sometimes to play games with them, sometimes to try to sleep with them, but, on the simplest level, to be around them.
There’s a pleasing aesthetic sympathy between novels and bars, a quaintness of purpose and design. Both are anachronisms, throwbacks from a slower, more sociable age. And while reading a novel may at times make a person less sociable, the novel itself is, like a bar, a locus of social interaction. Fiction is mostly constructed from forcing characters into interactions with other characters—it approaches the level of axiom to say that until your protagonist encounters at least one other person, you don’t have a plot. It’s no coincidence that a disproportionate number of the greatest novels through history are enormously and colorfully populated—what are Vanity Fair or A House for Mr. Biswas, after all, other than fictional saloons you can drop into, when time and sobriety allows?
It’s not hard to see why bars appeal as literary settings—they’re places where people get drunk. Drunk people can be violent, oversexed, unpredictable, mean, maudlin, and overhonest—regrettable qualities in real life, but great ones in fiction. Alcohol makes things happen, and while as a writer you cannot, as a rule, rely on alcohol as the primary motivator for a character’s action, you can certainly use it as a catalyst. Plus, in fiction, you have the added advantage of control. Filter out the inane chatter and the bad breath, the stench of the bathroom and doinging of the Megatouch machine in the corner—or, even better, leave them in.
I love dive bars, places so depressing that a normal person would forswear drinking just to avoid setting foot in them. I can microdistinguish between types of dive bars the way a lepidopterist can distinguish between monarchs and … some other kind of butterfly. A bar with a Jägermeister machine (the kind that has a bottle upside-down in it, in order to get it ice-cold and pour it from a tap) will be a shitty disaster by eleven thirty. A bar with Foosball, especially one of the old-school Rene Pierre cork-ball tables, will almost always be hospitable. And there is a type of ersatz dive bar that tries to pass by selling PBR and hiring bearded bartenders, but real dives have a lived-in quality, an accumulation of years of despair that builds up on the walls the way tobacco smoke used to when you could still smoke inside them. They are darkly lit pro forma, but the real ones are spiritually dark.
One of my favorite real-life dives made it into the novel—it’s called the Tamarack in print, but the real place is Buddy’s, a beach bar in Surf City, on Topsail Island in North Carolina. When we lived in NC, my wife (whom I met at a bar, incidentally) and I always stopped for a drink at Buddy’s to mark the beginning of vacation. It’s an open-air spot on the little boardwalk in town, with a bar top so long exposed to the salt air that it’s rotted clean through in spots, which have in turn been shellacked over time by countless uncleaned drink spills. Buddy’s signature feature, besides their impressively hostile staff, is the signed dollar bills plastering every available inch of its ceiling.
This decorative tactic is not unique to Buddy’s, but they’ve perfected it; or rather, the average level of holiday inebriation in its customers has perfected it. The bills are little lizard brain shouts of horniness, anger, and ego: G. I. ASSHOUND, KASH KREW 2009, TYLER DAVIS!!!, YOLO JANELLE. The ones expressing innocent pleasure at the being on vacation, at the beach, are somehow deeply touching in the midst of the hormonal yelps, especially one that flaps in the crossbreeze near the restrooms: ENDLESS SUMMER.
But really, the bills are all poignant, as a record of the hopes, fears, and dreams of the patrons, many of whom are soldiers on rowdy furlough from nearby Camp Lejeune. They manifest something I like about bars—the sense of potential. Again, bars are places where something, anything, might happen. That this something—whatever it is, fighting or fucking or dancing or meeting a new friend or making a new enemy—usually fails to happen doesn’t diminish the potency of the feeling, or the need to have it occasionally. The feeling itself is sometimes all you need, the aura of danger and possibility, however unlikely or false.
After tending bar for years, I should hate bars, honestly. I used to fear the appearance of certain customers the way a bad sleeper fears recurring nightmares. For instance, Jim, who would come in about twice a week, down five whiskey and cokes in an hour, and regale me with one of two stories. The first was about his house in Woodstock, New York, which he’d owned since the sixties and would still visit from time to time on terrifying cross-country DUI jaunts—the story, such as it was, had to do with Bob Dylan and Big Pink, which was down the block and something something something. Jim was a big, bald dude, with raw pink eczema up and down his meaty forearms, with which he’d prop himself against the bar, while leaning in at a forty-five degree angle, as though holding the joint up against a fierce gale.
The other story was really, after a year or two, just a well-worn comedy gag. At the place in question, we spun old vinyl behind the bar. Jim would come in and ask, “What record is this?”
No matter how you answered, he’d say, “Have I ever told you about the best show I ever saw?”
I should say here that Jim also had a terrible stutter—one that got exponentially worse when he was drinking, which was always, or at least always when I saw him. I feel bad about bringing it up, but at the same time I feel it’s important information, in order to accurately capture for the reader how devastating it was to be caught by Jim at one in the morning, as I was starting to clean up, broom in hand while executing the rest of the exchange:
“Yeah, New York?”
“Weather Report, Chelsea Piers.”
I heard this fucking story no less than fifteen or twenty times. You would think this kind of thing would have made me hate bars and the people that went into them. But I had a soft spot for Jim, and for whatever confluence of alcoholism, sadness, hope, and loneliness, especially, compelled him to execute this script on schedule with me, a total stranger. It fulfilled a need, a need as real as the need to drink, and perhaps the need to drink facilitated this larger need on his part, to attempt connection with another person, through the very meager means available to him. Maybe it wasn’t even the connection itself—hopefully not, since there really wasn’t one—but the ritual, the Kabuki of connection, with the bar as theater and alcohol as creative inspiration.
There is something in the drinker that assents to life’s essential absurdity, and to the fundamental disorganization of existence (and something of the opposite in the writer, whose work is a daily, artificial ordering of words into thought). Here, then, is perhaps what I finally love about bars, and why I like to write about them. They facilitate mutual and intentional disorganization, in a world that demands, sometimes far more than is natural or desirable, that we have our shit together. There’s something honest about this little act of communal rebellion. It’s not a rebellion that usually effects social change, but it is necessary, and in that sense it is good. We were not made just to work, to reproduce, to save our money and die. We can sit beside each other, elbow to elbow, drinks in hand, sharing this truth and this feeling, if nothing else.
Adam O’Fallon Price’s novel, The Grand Tour, is out now.