10 Books That Feel Like Going to a Bar

Fiction to tide you over until cocktail lounges and local pubs are safe again

Beer glass being filled from tap
Photo by Amie Johnson
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In some states the barflies have migrated back to patios and beer gardens, but it’s going to be a long time before a night out feels normal again. If you miss sampling expertly crafted cocktails in elegant lounges, sinking into happy hour conversations with coworkers after the office closes, or playing spirited rounds of pub trivia with your friends, consider turning to one of these ten books set in bars to tide you over until it’s safe to gather at your favorite local watering hole.

Ordinary Hazards by Anna Bruno

Bruno’s debut novel follows Emma, a hedge fund manager and MBA professor with a passion for story structure, as she sits in her local bar in upstate New York, drinking whiskey and descending hour by hour through her grief and guilt about the recent breakdown of her marriage. Why is she here when she has to be up before the markets open, or even upstate at all instead of on Wall Street? Why do her friends keep texting, trying to get her to come over? How far will she go to punish one of her ex’s friends who confronts her at the bar that night, and what will it cost him? How has Emma’s story become so broken?

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

In Krueger’s light contemporary fantasy, recent college grad Bailey is living with her parents and bartending with her old high school hookup friend while trying to figure out her future. After killing an attacking demon, she discovers a deep history of monster-fighting bartenders and that certain magically mixed cocktails can give her temporary powers of super strength, telekinesis, and the ability to blast elemental energy to fight the demons. Her race to stop a series of gruesome deaths and navigate the shadowy world of bartenders is punctuated with 14 recipes from an ancient book of cocktail lore.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley’s 1990 debut novel introduces us to reluctant detective Easy Rawlins, a Black World War II vet recently laid off from a defense production plant. When a white mobster hires him to track down a French femme fatale who has disappeared with $30,000, Easy must track her through one bar and jazz club after another in 1948 Los Angeles.

Hysteria by Jessica Gross

The unnamed millennial narrator of Gross’s debut novel lives too close to her parents and can’t seem to escape their shadow. A sex addict, she stumbles drunkenly from one encounter to another, from her psychiatrist’s parents’ colleague to her roommate’s brother. When she encounters a sympathetic bartender at local Pilz Bar who looks just like Sigmund Freud, she imagines them into a client-therapist relationship and begins to sort through her complex feelings for older men. The book is like “if Ottessa Moshfegh and Phoebe Waller-Bridge painted the town red together,” according to Courtney Maum’s front cover endorsement.

The Bar Stories: A Novel After All by Nisa Donnelly

Donnelly’s 1989 collection revolves around lesbian bar Babe’s in Oakland, California, and the many women who cross paths there. After shattering her leg in a roller derby accident, Babe Daniels rescues her partner and her partner’s baby from a shelter for unwed mothers and begins working in the bar she will one day buy. At her bar, we meet a prize-winning photojournalist who left her lover and drove across the country to document the lesbian nation, as well as members of the Dykeball Losers softball team, Babe’s ex, other roller derby players, and more. This collection won a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in the second year of the awards.

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Smile by Roddy Doyle

After splitting from his beautiful wife Rachel, Ireland’s television sweetheart, Victor Forde moves back to his hometown and spends his nights at Donnelly’s, the local pub. There he runs into an old schoolmate, Fitzpatrick, who seems to know more about him than anyone but Victor has any right to know. Victor can’t seem to remember the man, but their encounters in the pub kick up Victor’s memories of his Christian Brothers school teachers (at least one of whom sexually assaulted him once), his career as a rock critic and political journalist, and finally some shocking revelations about his relationship with Fitzpatrick.

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

In Philadelphia, two days before Christmas, a fifth-grader whose mother recently died and whose father has withdrawn into drug-numbed grief dreams of becoming a jazz singer. After her principal, who always resented her mother, unfairly expels her, she sets off across town to find a jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas. The club’s owner has been threatened by police with a shutdown if there are any more code violations, but he’s promised his talented underage son a chance to play in the house band that night. As the hours progress, the storylines of these and other characters finally converge at The Cat’s Pajamas.

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

Barrett’s debut collection of six short stories and a novella are all set in the fictional town of Glanbeigh in County Mayo, Ireland. The lives of its young men revolve around the local pub, as they sit at the bar over drained pint glasses and recount their failures to one another. The protagonists are often people on the fringes of society whose lives are occasionally punctuated with violence, their stories with world-weary wisdom.

Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo

Ben grows up in a poor, rural Black community in Georgia during the Jim Crow era but decides to run away to Harlem. Despite being attracted to boys, he agrees to marry Angeline, a girl he meets on the train north. The two arrive in Harlem and get jobs, but one night in a hot jazz club, Ben falls for another man, an abusive and controlling trumpeter from South Carolina who lures him away to jazz clubs of Paris.

When All is Said by Anne Griffin

In Griffin’s debut novel, octogenarian Maurice plans a night of drinking in a hotel bar in his native County Meath, Ireland. He raises five stout-and-whiskey toasts to four deceased loved ones and a son who has left to work in America. Through his memories of the five, we learn about his boyhood working in the manor house that became this hotel, his later successes in business, and the lasting repercussions of his youthful theft of a valuable coin.

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