At the bar where I was a regular in college, the bartenders all seemed like characters in a novel—they were nervier and sharper than the patrons, and their problems seemed of a higher grade too, involving things like broken engagements (usually after an affair with another bartender) and malpractice suits. So it’s somewhat surprising that there aren’t more novels centered around bars, especially given how much time writers purport to spend in them. D.C. writer Tara Yellen has said she began a sideline as a waitress “to meet people,” and her first novel, After Hours at the Almost Home, exhibits both the compressed glamour of behind-the-bar life and its limitations. The novel takes place on Super Bowl Sunday at the Almost Home Bar and Grill in Denver (it’s Broncos vs. Falcons, which makes it January 1999). It’s the bar’s busiest day of the year, and it also happens to be the night when one of the regular bartenders, Marna, doesn’t show up. Instead, the Almost Home is blessed with young JJ, possibly the most irritating and incompetent trainee barback ever: “Vodka and apple juice?” a bartender asks her, trying to read her scrawled-down drink orders. “Jesus. And a seedy Manhattan?” The first half of the novel is the story of JJ’s induction into the Almost Home world, as she bumbles around, learning how to roll utensils in napkins and slowly grasping the intricate connections between her new co-workers: grouchy Lena, who’s in love with bartender Denny; dorky Keith, who pines for the absent Marna; and neurotic, kind, middle-aged Colleen, who became a waitress after her husband died. Once the customers go home and the bartenders start drinking on their own, the night, as well as the novel, degenerates—one misses the bar patter of the frenetic early scenes. The talky late-night drinking party has its ridiculous moments (“Do you think religious people ever whisper, Fuck me? Maybe just once, by mistake? You know, only in the deliberate act of procreation.”) as well as its surprisingly sweet ones, as when Lena thinks about Denny: “When push came to shove, he wasn’t her type.…But it was Denny. She looked over at him now, drinking his drink, flipping a matchbook through his fingers—and all she saw, past, present, future, was Denny.” As the plot shifts focus to Colleen’s 14-year-old daughter, Lily, a victim of spectacularly bad parenting who shows up after close to hang around, flirt with Denny, and wait for her mother to finish drinking and take her home, the novel becomes too diffuse for any of the characters’ individual revelations and epiphanies to have much of an impact. “Don’t ever trust restaurant love,” Keith tells JJ in a gently moving scene, but then JJ has to endure several pages of pseudo-meaningful babble from a regular named India who calls love the “crop circle of the mind.” Drunks and children may tell the truth, but they chatter so much that the truth can get crowded out; similarly, Yellen’s novel is well-written and clever but ultimately unravels, surrounding its sharp observations with a few too many rambling anecdotes.