7 of the Most Memorable Bartenders in Literature

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From Electric Lit:

I have thought a lot, over my decade-plus of drinking and working in bars, about what makes any one establishment stand out over another. Why are there places we love and return to, and others we leave with indifference, ambivalence, even disappointment? On the one hand, if there was an easy answer, opening a bar wouldn’t be such a risky venture. There are so many factors at play—location is a big one, and design, and menu offerings—and there are so many different types of bars, so many success stories and failures. In some ways, defining a “good bar” is an impossible task. On the other hand, ask any barfly and they’ll give you the same answer. It always, in the end, comes down to the bartender.

And yet, there is a strange dearth of memorable bartenders in popular culture. Bars appear, generally, as settings divorced from the people that run them; with the occasional, notable exception (Cheers leaps to mind), bartenders are generally anonymous, interchangeable, forgotten. This is part of what I see as a more general lack of service industry stories, a lack that I felt as I worked on my debut novel, The Bartender’s Cure.

In The Bartender’s Cure, the bars are literally defined by their staff: the protagonist’s place of work is called Joe’s Apothecary, but every other establishment remains nameless—Gina’s bar, Casey’s bar, Timothy’s bar. I don’t think I even noticed myself naming them this way, not at first, but it felt right. The bartender defines your experience, as a guest: they shepherd you through your night, they feed and water you, they look out for your comfort, your safety, and your joy. If you’re very lucky, you get to know them a little bit too.

The novels below understand this, and have created compelling, magnetic bar personalities. At the top of the list are the bartenders we know best—protagonists, followed by love interests, followed by memorable minor characters. I would visit any one of them at work in a heartbeat.

. . . .

The Night Shift by Natalka Burian

The protagonist of Natalka Burian’s upcoming novel is a sort of classic accidental bartender. After leaving her more traditional job working for a successful psychotherapist, Jean Smith takes a job at Red and Gold, a divey bar in early-aughts Manhattan where the nights consist of drunk hipsters and hundreds (maybe thousands) of vodka-sodas. Jean is a newbie, and we see her struggle behind the bar as all newbies do, but she’s hardworking and stubborn, which I respect. And at any rate, The Night Shift isn’t really about the bar—it’s about the nighttime world that bar work introduces Jean to, with its colorful characters and mysterious shortcuts: strange passageways through space and time that are much more sinister than they seem. Jean is a classic reluctant hero type, and Burian weaves together her painful past and troubled coming-of-age with a riveting, high-stakes mystery.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

1 thought on “7 of the Most Memorable Bartenders in Literature”

  1. SF has its own memorable bartender based stories. In entire series. Typically light and amusing shorts.

    Spider Robinson’s CALLAHAN’S CROSSTIME SALOON series is most prominent (12 modern volumes) but I favor tbe older fantasy based TALES FROM GAVAGAN’S BAR by Pratt and deCamp.


    And, of course, there’s the 150+ JORGENS stories from LORD DUNSANY.

    “Joseph Jorkens (usually referred to simply as Jorkens) is the lead character in over 150 short stories written between 1925 and 1957 by the Irish author Lord Dunsany, noted for his fantasy short stories, fantastic plays, novels and other writings. The Jorkens stories, primarily fantasy but also including elements of adventure, mystery and science fiction literature, have been collected in a series of six books, and were a key inspiration for the “fantastic club tale” type of short story. ”

    An honorable mention should go to Asimov’s Henry, the waiter of his mystery series, the TALES OF THE BLACK WIDOWERS.

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