Later, at the Bar
As the Cheers sitcom amply demonstrated, bars are the watering holes around which human critters gather to swap stories and occasionally get entangled into each other's lives. And so it is a fine idea that Rebecca Barry uses a neighborhood tavern as a backdrop for her first novel. What better stage could there be for life's roll call of passing acquaintances, doomed attractions, and ephemeral friendships.
Later, at the Bar is a series of interconnected short stories, each loosely based around regulars at an upstate New York dive. "Lucy's Tavern was the place most people in town came to lick their wounds or someone else's, or to give into the night and see what would happen," Barry writes. We meet a range of characters of varying repute, such as Madeline Harris, a school-bus driver who drinks her liquor straight and advises the girls on her route not to give out free blow jobs, and Curly, who keeps a collection of pubic hairs in his wallet.
Much of the book revolves around two regulars. One is Linda Hartley, a straight-shooting advice columnist trying to forge a relationship with a mild-mannered wildlife biologist living afar. She dedicates herself to this man in order to get her mind off her former paramour, a charismatic and rugged fellow patron with a wandering eye for the ladies. Also center stage is Harlin Wilder, a rough-hewn, heavy-drinking itinerant worker who also bears the brunt of more than a few complicated relationships. Out of jail from driving drunk and violating probation, he keeps hooking up with his ex-wife, a coupling that does neither of them, nor his roommates, much good.
Despite the many shortcomings and roadblocks she inflicts upon her players, Barry mostly falls short at capturing the slow-burning brilliance of alcohol-fueled dissolution. Conversations and characters are often too cute to be believable (A personal collection of pubic hairs? Yeah, right.). Read as short stories, few chapters stand on their own. Also, the novel's narrative arc is flat. It rattles on and then, after hitting a relatively minor plot twist, creaks to a halt like a $1,000 car. Still, Barry occasionally plunges into the kinds of depths that can return rare malignant beauty, such as when Harris speculates what a dirt-poor mother at the last stop thinks of her misfit child: "Does she wonder what to do with a kid who consistently asks for love the wrong way?" At times, Later, at the Bar reminds us we're all kids on that bus.