Review: In David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar, a Comedian Bares his Soul
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The hallmarks of David Grossman’s writing are subtlety, thoughtfulness, and deeply felt emotion, and I was looking forward to another such book when I started his latest Man Booker International Prize winning novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, translated by Jessica Cohen. I had been moved by his 2008 novel, To the End of the Land, about a woman who leaves home to walk across Israel, persuading herself that if she is not at home to receive news of her soldier son’s death, he cannot possibly die. The ghastly synchronicity that led to Grossman himself receiving news of his own son’s death in Lebanon just as he was finishing the novel adds to its poignancy. This was followed by Falling Out of Time, a novel that combines prose, poetry and drama, in which the ‘Walking Man’, who paces the town in ever-widening circles in search of his dead son, is joined by others on similar quests. A peace activist, Grossman seems always to emphasise what unites, rather than divides people.
But with A Horse Walks into A Bar, we are in completely different territory. The book is mostly composed of the ranting monologue of a sleazy stand up comedian – Dovaleh Greenstein – who appears emaciated and on the verge of a mental breakdown. Haranguing, needling and pleading in turn, he trots out the hackneyed jokes suggested by the title, while bragging, posturing and insulting his audience and making tasteless jokes about Arabs and Jews and the Holocaust.
Here’s a sample from the beginning:
‘Good evening! Good evening! Good evening to the majestic city of Caesariyaaaaaah!’
The stage is empty. The thundering shout echoes down the wings. The audience slowly quietens down and grins expectantly. A short, slight, bespectacled man lurches onto the stage from a side door as if he’d been kicked through it. He takes a few faltering steps, trips, brakes himself on the wooden floor with both hands, then sharply juts his rear end up. People are still filing into the club, chattering loudly. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ announces a tight-lipped man standing at the lighting console, ‘put your hands together for Dovaleh G!’ The man on the stage still crouches like a monkey, his big glasses askew on his nose. He slowly turns to face the room and scans it with a long unblinking look.
‘Oh, wait a minute,’ he grumbles, ‘this isn’t Caesarea, is it?’ Sounds of laughter. He slowly straightens up and dusts his hands off. ‘Looks like my agent fucked me again.’
Narrator of the book, and witness to the evening, is Avishai, a retired judge and estranged childhood friend of Dovaleh’s, who has reluctantly agreed to be there at his request to ‘see me, really see me’, and who, along with the rest of the audience and the reader, is repelled by his performance. As Dovaleh’s insults and jokes gradually turn into a self-lacerating confession, the audience becomes restive, and by the end of the evening only a handful of people are left.
As a reader, I too was challenged. Part of the reason is that initially Dovaleh himself is so unlikeable, and partly it’s the difficulty of creating the sense of a live performance in writing. As an oral storyteller and writer myself, I know that there is a world of difference between a live performance and a written or recorded one. Something dies when a live performance is captured, and so it is impossible for Grossman to create a sense of the immediacy of a stand up performance.
It’s a risky and interesting experiment in how to hold a reader but when such an experienced author chooses a medium so unsuitable for his material it raises the question why. It almost seems as if Grossman is challenging us to close the book, and at times I found it so uncomfortable that I was tempted to do so. On a plot level, what held me, as it holds Avishai, was fascination at this car crash of a performance and curiosity about how it would end, but on a deeper level there is also a sense that underneath this cringe-making performance is something much more profound and meaningful, with implications for us all.
As the evening goes on it becomes apparent that Dovaleh is tormenting himself as much as his audience. His cynical asides are interrupted by a tiny woman in the audience who knew him as a child and insists on his goodness and kindness. Her faith in him shakes him more than the heckling and insults of other audience members, and as the façade begins to crack we start to glimpse the reality that his humour is a defence against. As he relates the tale of his childhood, the mother left broken by the Holocaust, the father who beat him, the bullying he underwent at school, and the hideous choice he had to make between the two people he cared most about, Avishai, the judge, comes to recognise that he too is implicated.
As Avishai and the reader journey from repulsion into compassion and self-questioning, the novel re-enters the territory, so movingly explored in To the End of the Land and Falling Out of Time of how much reality we can bear to face, and the stratagems we use to avoid it that cut us off from other people - a message applicable not only to Grossman's fellow Israelis, some with a traumatic past, but to all of us in a world where the vulnerable are seen as a threat, diplomacy is abandoned in favour of belligerence and posturing, and those in power are not afraid to give offence.
Not every reader will finish this challenging book, but those who do won’t regret it. I am still thinking about it days later.
top image Credit: The Butler Collegian