Come inside from the bone-chilling night, grab a stool beside whatever drunken lowlife just ended his fourth marriage, and warm yourself in Lucy’s Tavern, the vermouth venue of Rebecca Barry’s debut novel. Told in vignettes that all end on the bittersweet note often heard in county western songs played on the jukebox, later, at the bar collects the sob stories of those sorry barflies who, despite their frequent stops to the local watering hole and endless vodka tonics, never find happy hour.
Nothing like Cheers, nor even remotely similar to the trendy dive bars so many 20-something singles frequent, Lucy’s Tavern more resembles the dilapidated after hour sanctuary of factory workers. Founded in a brick building that had once been an apothecary, this bar works its single-malted magic on the neighborhood and only invites inside those who “like longing more than they do love.” Hardwood floors seasoned and polished from years of dancing and fighting, Lucy’s is a place with some history, where everyone not only knows your name, but the names of your divorce lawyer and abandoned flings, too.
Filled with pathetic heroes and characters whose only retreat is the bottle, later, at the bar reveals the backwoods of rural New York, where both men and women alike are prone to bad decisions, both caused and solved with alcohol. The best part about this novel, however, is not the quirky happenstances of drunks, but rather the cool nod to the regrets that haunt all humans.
Drown your sorrows all you want, booze only curbs the pain of a broken heart. And that’s the point Barry hits home with her deadpan wit and frank narrative: drunks are in need of healing and family, too. Thank God there’s a place where you can nurse your scotch, where all is forgiven, all is forgotten, at least for one night, until the hangover sledgehammers you in the morning and you remember all your drunken mistakes.
Welcome to Lucy’s Tavern, home of the chronically lovesick.
Take Linda Hartley, a freelance advice columnist who ignores her own advice and junks her current relationship for a brief encounter with a womanizing old flame, a man she can’t help but love. Or how about Grace Meyers, the bowler who hops from one bed to the next, searching for the sweet surrender of intimacy that never lasts longer than a shotgun marriage and another prompt divorce?
And let’s not forget about Harlin Wilder. Here’s a man who’s constantly torn between the boring straight-and-narrow and the belligerent freedom of alcohol. One night, drunk on bad booze and jealousy, he’ll commission his brother to drive him to a bowling tournament where he’s sure to botch yet another marriage. And the next evening, wearing nothing but his pajamas and slippers, Harlin will pace the length of a prison cell, suspected of stealing chicken wings from a delivery man’s car. Hell if a man can get much more pathetic than that.
Essentially, Harlin lives and dies by his restless hope, which “kept him from being a bad man, and part of what made him a stupid one.” Like the remaining barflies who look for love in all the wrong places, only one thing makes Harlin’s life bearable, and that’s the tacit forgiveness granted at Lucy’s Tavern, where you can sit, drink, and just heartache over your beer for a short while.
Cross the icy interstate, down a few bourbons, guzzle two or three Guinnesses beside friends who are just as pathetic and lonely as you, and you get the spellbinding human cocktail that is later, at the bar. Whether you’re a school bus driver guarding family secrets or an awkward cook who can’t speak to women, all who suffer in solitude are welcome at Lucy’s. As Linda Hartley writes in a letter:
Not much is new here. Last night I went out to my bar and had a lovely time. It’s such a comfort to be a regular at a bar, especially when you live alone. I mean that in the least pathetic, nicest possible way. I saw almost everyone I wanted to see and got caught up on some of the gossip ... I sat there remembering what it is that I love about a small-town bar, the way it’s like a perfect family, always there if you need it, but if you need to leave it for a while and get away, you can.
But later, at the bar is by no means flawless. Because of the woven vignette format that Barry chose for her book, her narrative often suffers from jarring lapses in the timeline and lengthy, unaccountable character disappearances. For example owner Lucy, who mysteriously commits suicide in the first chapter, is never fully rendered, nor her death explained adequately. So too, Barry’s extreme focus on the bar setting around which most of her stories revolve often results in truncated character development.
In a word, later, at the bar reads much more like a collection than a novel, and advertising the book as a “novel in stories” and overcompensating with forced character cameos to preserve the interconnected fictional world only serves to confuse readers.
But you might forgive these hiccups in narrative after listening to Barry’s gritty, minimalist prose. Reminiscent of Hemingway and Carver, her authentic sentences never waste a single word, nor sugarcoat the harsh experience of rural relationships. Her characters all cuss and spit without hesitation or apology. If you’re in need of a break from the cerebral, hyper-ironic, guarded fashion of writers who set all their stories in Manhattan, later, at the bar will definitely breathe some new literary life into you.
Overall, Barry’s novel is a fascinating (and seductive) depiction of the yearning lowlife, one that makes her debut as a novelist all the more exciting. Though her narrative drifts at times and the glimpses into her characters are much too brief for the novel platform, Later, at the Bar definitely has moments that will ring your heart out like a beer-soaked towel. A good premier, a quick read, but not a staggering work of genius, this first novel could be the stepping stone of a budding future talent.