The End of the Sherry is a beautiful memoir chronicling the life and times of Bruce Berger in Southern Spain as a young, 20-something American. Berger flew to Spain from California, abandoning graduate school in Berkeley, his story following the footsteps of a friend, his dog and a dodgy car. His friend soon decided to go his separate way and Bruce found himself in a sleepy, small town in Southern Spain, picking up his own little entourage and filling in as the pianist for several rock and roll bands playing at night clubs. With his home base set up at campgrounds close to town, Berger often spent the day entertaining his friends at home: “Drifts of free time washed them daily to my tent, sometimes bearing bread and cheese.”
Essays delve into Berger’s varied experiences in Spain—encounters with local eccentrics, the highs and lows of playing in a band, nascent romances, faith and life under Franco, with each experience rendered in prose laced with pathos and humor, demonstrating an innate curiosity for place, context and culture. When writing about his dalliances with religion as a child in the Christian Science tradition, Berger writes that in Spain he:
. . . never mentioned that the Protestantism I grew up in was Christian Science, whose tenets would have disqualified me as a rational being. Looking back on childhood, I could see that I had tried to hold onto Sunday school theology in the way one clings to the atmosphere of a dream, even when that dream is not entirely pleasant-but it was hard to believe in the non-existence of matter when the tweed I was forced to wear itched on my neck.
Just when you think that the writing is getting denser with some intense recounting of childhood memories of church and faith, Berger brings the reader back into the here and now and reminds you that yes, of course, while at Sunday school, one has to worry about itchy tweed jackets and the sheer textural and tactile experiences of quotidian life.
Months passed. Berger’s mother visited him in Spain, triggering a not altogether unexpected existential crisis. What are you doing with your life, his mother asked him. “‘Living it,’ I declared with what I hoped was finality. ‘That’s no answer,’ replied my mother. ‘We all live our lives. What are you doing with yours?’” Berger then rationalizes his time in Spain as the fruits of a delayed youth: “As an actual teenager, immersed in books or the family Steinway, alone or with adults, I hadn’t even been young at all, and perhaps it was important to get it all in even if it was out of sequence.” Berger refers back to this notion of “out of sequence,” and it serves in the end, as a leitmotif of his times in Spain.
Indeed, he was living his life, and chalking up experiences, ranging from the ordinary to the bizarre as a part-time itinerant fishmonger and English tutor to a monk. Perhaps many of these forays were laced with the ulterior motives of a fledgling writer: “If I was an achieved atheist, I was only as aspiring writer, and felt I should be exposed to everything if only to have experience to draw on.”
The End of the Sherry also serves as a useful ethnographic portrait of Spain under Franco. Berger’s words describe the general air of malaise and despair in small town Spain mingled with a certain fatalism that allowed the Spaniards to take life as it came.
The End of the Sherry is a classic, coming-of-age memoir that doesn’t reveal itself as such until after the fact. And that may be the best thing about it. Coming-of-age novels and memoirs are often cloyingly laden with seemingly instructive and life changing moments, crescendoing up to where the writer or the protagonist is in the here and now. Berger’s stories are light and airy, unfettered by the usual burdens of having to create a whole, of rendering something greater than the sum of its parts. The ‘whole’ does emerge but rather like sherry, the fortified wine that Berger is initially curious about in his early days in Spain, the full effect of Berger’s reminiscences should be allowed to marinate and age, almost “out of sequence” to truly enjoy it. Therein lies the beauty of The End of the Sherry.