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A Horse Walks into a Bar


A Horse Walks into a Bar

written by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

The latest novel from David Grossman, one of Israel's most well-known contemporary writers, is a compact examination of a man in crisis, who, over the course of a searing evening, turns a comedy stage into something more closely resembling a psychiatrist's couch. Relentless and verbally inventive, it's still a less than fully satisfying work that's likely to leave many readers as relieved as the audience remaining when it finally reaches its end.

A HORSE WALKS INTO A BAR plays out in the form of an extended standup routine by the comedian Dov Greenstein ("Dovaleh G," as he refers to himself) in a seedy club in the Israeli city of Netanya. The novel's narrator is Avishai Lazar, a childhood acquaintance of Dov's and a retired trial court judge who left the bench in part because of his intemperate courtroom behavior. After 43 years, they reconnect when Dov calls Avishai and asks him to attend his performance. "I want you to look at me," he tells Avishai. "I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me. … "What you saw."

"Grossman succeeds in capturing the claustrophobia of the comedy club and the damnably difficult job of the standup comic whose routine isn't connecting..."

Overcoming his initial reluctance, Avishai enters the alien environment of the comedy club. To imagine Dov's routine, mix Rodney Dangerfield with Don Rickles, sprinkle over that some Jerry Lewis physical shtick, add a hefty helping of the Borscht Belt (the old joke about the snail who's mugged by two turtles but says he can't identify them because it "happened so fast" finds its way into the routine) and toss in some off-color humor for seasoning.

What's slowly revealed, however, on an evening Dov claims marks his 57th birthday is that he's looking for Avishai to provide much more than a critique of his comedy chops. That becomes clear when he begins to tell the story of his "first funeral," an incident that occurred when Dov and Avishai, then age 14, attended a military summer camp in the Negev.

One day, Dov, the victim of persistent bullying (he trains himself to walk on his hands to distract his tormentors), is summoned home to Jerusalem. Amid his scattershot jokes and nonstop abuse of the audience (whose departing members are tracked by Dov's red slashes on a blackboard), he describes that trip in the company of a driver who fancies himself something of a comic talent.

Dov's account of the seemingly endless ride home, during which the identity of the person whose burial he's attending is cruelly withheld from him, is a bleak oral history of life with an abusive father who works as a barber and runs a business selling rags out of the family's flat and a mother who has survived both the Holocaust and a suicide attempt. Avishai, who never was close to Dov as a child, gradually opens to the comedian's suffering, even summoning, in snippets of painful memory, the recent loss of his own wife. He understands that Dov's story, mingled as it is with his barrage of jokes, has "annihilated the possibility of laughter," leaving the audience to choose between departing or yielding to "the temptation that is so hard to resist --- the temptation to look into another man's hell."

Grossman succeeds in capturing the claustrophobia of the comedy club and the damnably difficult job of the standup comic whose routine isn't connecting, complicated by Dov's desperation to pour out his life to the uneasy onlookers, most of whom are unprepared to serve as his emotional sounding board. "Can you believe he's using us to work out his hang-ups?" one complains as he leaves with a group of patrons who "stream out like hurrying refugees."

A HORSE WALKS INTO A BAR is something less than a major work from a novelist of David Grossman's range and depth. It seems, at times, more of an exercise, in which the multitalented Grossman set for himself the task of working in a highly constrained, almost laboratory-like environment. It's possible to admire that creativity while recognizing that the novel ultimately fails to land the sought-for emotional punch.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 3, 2017

A Horse Walks into a Bar
written by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

  • Publication Date: January 16, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101973498
  • ISBN-13: 9781101973493