A Horse Walks into a Bar
by David Grossman (Sus echad nichnas lebar, 2014)
translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (2017)
Knopf (2017)
208 pp

Without leaving the British it is easy to think of comedians or other entertainers who struggled with mental health. Some of them, like Spike Milligan, Kenneth Williams, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, or Peter Cook — probably the funniest of the lot — remain household names years after their deaths. In Hancock’s case, and possibly Williams’, these struggles were inflicted by their own hands. Sellers, who most may know from The Pink Panther or Dr. Strangelove, said, “If you ask me to play myself I will not know what to do. I don’t know who or what I am so I will not be able to help you. I’m not the real Peter Sellers. I’m just a plastic mock-up.” Some cleavage or schism between stage or screen persona and the person beneath seems to link cases such as these. This approximate territory is where David Grossman has set A Horse Walks Into A Bar, in which the obnoxious and generally unfunny club comic Dovaleh G — short for Dov Greenstein — takes to the stage in the Israeli city of Netanya in front of a simple-minded crowd which expects to be amused, yet instead observes disintegration and collapse. This shortish novel occurs mostly real-time, and much will depend on whether or not the reader finds Dovaleh convincing, either as a comic or as a confessor. As the former, it may be fairest to say that he mightn’t be superbly funny. The latter episodes drag the novel in a separate direction; the extent to which this is balanced satisfactorily is an important gauge into one’s view of the level of success achieved. Its position on the shortlist at least means that The Man Booker International Prize so far approves.

Our narrator is a childhood friend of Dovaleh’s who has been invited to sit in the crowd, hardly aware of why he has been asked to do so. Avishai Lazar is a famous retired lawyer and has only reluctantly agreed to turn up having been disturbed from his life of gardening and leisure by a sudden phone call from Dovaleh.    

“I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“What you saw.”

We immediately learn, then, that a key development in the forthcoming pages will be what it is from history that binds these men. Lazar thinks that he will be confronted for the bullying he saw Dovaleh suffer at a youngsters’ military camp, but which he did nothing to prevent. For now, however, Dovaleh’s set begins relatively conventionally. Netanya, and particularly its women, are roundly mocked. There are some Jewish jokes (“the last time in my life I didn’t have any problems was when I still had my foreskin”) and some Israel jokes as he tos and fros with the audience (“Wait, you’re from the settlements? But then who’s left to beat up the Arabs?”), then more concerning people like Baruch Goldstein, a physician and extremist who shot dead twenty-nine Arab worshippers in a mosque in Hebron in 1994. Cheap stuff, but satisfactory to a fairly undemanding audience. Aside from Lazar’s recollections of the phone call and of his own deliberations upon receiving it which separate what amounts to a transcript of the set, the biggest clue we get of Dovaleh’s coming deterioration is a level of self-deprecation which is rather extreme even in a comedy world very much used to it. His appearance, his failed marriages, five estranged children and a recently diagnosed prostate cancer, added to an abusive father (“With him you never really knew where the next punch was going to come from.”) provide the basis for much of this. Lazar is appalled:

(Greenstein) enjoys fanning the flames, stimulating some kind of vulgar, corrupt gland, and I suddenly know in the clearest and simplest way that I do not want or need to be here.

Much of the audience takes the same view. Several heckle, Greenstein keeps a tally on a blackboard of those who leave.  He tells the audience that what they are about to receive is no stand-up set, but a confessional:

. . . this is a story that honest to God, I have never told in a show. Never told it in any gig, never told it to a single person, and tonight it’s going to happen . . .

This occurs around a third or so into the novel. By this point readers may have decided that Dovaleh’s company is not of a sufficiently high quality to merit high interest in what is to follow. The story itself, as it transpires, may well be interesting enough, but this does not resolve the question of whether Dovaleh is the ideal delivery system. Some of his dialogue is overlong, too peripatetic, skittish and erratic, sometimes filling several pages at a time. And unless you care about Dovaleh, you mightn’t be particularly concerned with what happened to him. What perhaps works best is Lazar’s reaction, which is immune from the boorishness of Dovaleh. His is a thoughtful, gentle and considered tone, rendered in a prose evocative not only economy of effort but also a pacy forwards momentum.

The radiance of personality, I thought. The inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity. Everything that lies beyond the words that describe a person, beyond the things that happened to him and the things that went wrong and became warped in him. The same thing that years ago, when I was just starting out as a judge, I naively swore to look for in every person who stood before me, whether defendant or witness. The thing I swore I would never be indifferent to, which would be the point of departure for my judgment.

This “thing” is memory and in particular the pain of loss, territory into which Grossman has ventured before. His son was killed in Lebanon during Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah; he later spoke of the way in which the death “now permeates every minute of my life.” A later novel, Falling Out of Time, was about the shock of bereavement. The purpose of Dovaleh’s story was provided elsewhere by Grossman when he said, “You have to act against the gravity of grief — to decide you won’t fall.” Dovaleh’s monologue seems designed to achieve exactly this. Whether or not he succeeds will remain a subjective judgement on the part of the reader. Whether the novel at large succeeds is a question of rather a different order. The answer will depend on the extent to which it is concluded that the stand-up set and the novel’s more meaningful insights are compatible, as well as the matter of how much of Dovaleh’s company one can stand.

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