A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman
Book review by Jay Richardson
With A Horse Walks Into A Bar, Israeli writer David Grossman accomplishes the seemingly impossible and transposes an entire stand-up show into a novel.
Shocking and intense, bleak but sensitive, this affecting tale is much more than novelty, as an embattled, middle-aged comedian performs a two-hour set in a small town Israeli bar.
Necessarily, A Horse Walks Into A Bar is gag-packed. Many of them are classic Jewish bait-and-switches, plenty of them cynical, pre-prepared heckler putdowns, still others hoary one-liners that are more ancient than the Torah, and plenty are just plain bad.
But the comic, Dovaleh Greenstein, is nothing if not painfully self-aware. And it quickly becomes apparent that he has to unburden himself of a difficult story, despite the provincial audience's desire for his standard repertoire of sex, relationships and heavy-handed political satire.
Dovaleh G, as he styles himself, isn't particularly likeable. But he is sympathetic, literally beating himself up at some points. And even when the crowd are onside, there's a fatalistic, car crash quality to the performance that keeps even the most resistant invested, at least initially.
The reader's proxy observer at the show and first-person narrator is a childhood acquaintance of Greenstein's, a retired judge preoccupied with his own demons, whom the comic has invited to pass judgement on him. Though less as a critic – the judge claims to have no interest in the art form – than as a historical witness.
This is not an easy read and the reader frequently finds themselves aligned with those in the bar resenting the comic, though more for the emotional manipulation you suspect that you're being set up for.
Less an examination of the mechanics of stand-up than humour's limits in processing experience, Greenstein's tale is eventually revealed as a terrible Sophie's Choice of how to cope with the unbearable.
What's truly remarkable about the narrative (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen) is the convincingness with which Grossman captures the interplay between comic and audience, his reaction to their appreciation and disdain, the interlocking levels of connection. Especially striking as Greenstein struggles to buy himself time is the tension between his throwaway, crowd-pleasing fare and his need to share something more poignant wrenched from the soul.
Happily, despite the judge's expressions to the contrary, his fondness for artistic flourishes and his own emotional repression, he proves himself an acute observer of what's unfolding, confronting memories he's not considered in decades.
The book is intermittently playful and pulsating, bruising and suffocating, and you feel yourself trapped in Dovaleh G's presence, but compelled to stay. And those who persevere with the quickly-devoured 200 or so pages are rewarded by a novel that probes the fullest absurdities of the human condition and our capacities to reconstitute suffering.
* A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman and translated by Jessica Cohen is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £15.99. Click here to order from Foyles.
Posted: 19 Dec 2016