Grossman, David. “A Horse Walks into a Bar: A Novel”, translated by Jessica Cohen, Knopf, 2017.
The Life of a Stand-Up Comic
The award-winning writer David Grossman brings us “a searing short novel about the life of a stand-up comic”, as it takes place in the course of one evening’s performance. Dov Greenstein takes the stage in a dive in the small Israeli city of Netanya. He is past his prime but still performing as a stand-up comic. Barbs fly back and forth between Dov and the audience and soon a deeper story begins to take shape that will change the lives of many of those in attendance.
Avishai Lazar, a district court judge who Dov knew as a boy is in the audience as are a few others from his childhood and knew Dov as an awkward kid who walked on his hands to confound the neighborhood bullies. As Dov speaks, what he says hangs between “hilarity and hysteria” and it is almost as if Dov is reciting a kind of memoir as we go back with him to his childhood and the terrors he experienced. us back into the terrors of his childhood: we meet his mother, a Holocaust survivor who was in need of constant monitoring and his father, a man who worked hard and punished hard yet had little understanding of his creative son. Dov remembers his week at a military camp where Lazar watched what would become the central event of Dov’s childhood. Dov dares to describe that which can hardly be described as Lazar wrestles with his own part in the comedian’s story of loss and survival. David Grossman investigates how people confront life’s problems and how art may issue forth from them. This is a novel that fits no genre. He has written a story about the malfunction of society and we soon realize that there is nothing new here aside from the ability to speak out. Often we can only understand truth as it is presented in fiction. This is a powerful read that shock you and have you dry your eyes as we are taken inside a man who has lived his life in despair and finally get to face those who forced him there. Humor and absurdity are used as a means to probe the deep corner of the human condition and we, the readers, find ourselves experiencing psychological and spiritual torture. We too have been guilty of hurting someone like Dov and we realize that as we read. Here is literature that shocks and enchants simultaneously and we feel the “friction between tragedy and life”. We are both captivated and pained but there is humanity waiting at the end of the book. This is not just about Dov Greenstein but also about the failings of humanity. As he steps upon the stage he unleashes his fury about Israel, modern culture, modern violence, himself and his own self-destructive parodying ways. He is a man in torment soul and even though this novel takes place for the most part on a comedian’s stage in Israel it is really about a suffering man who must face all he has done and what he has become and this reckoning that must be witnessed by his former childhood friend and narrator of the story Avishai Lazar.
Dov knows that he is about to lose it and comedy is the only way he can hold on. We see in him the sense that he is about to take a big step which he has no choice but to take and not look back. He takes us into his life and the events that tore him apart psychologically. This is a powerful story about a memorable character and the events that shaped him; a character who will no longer let this consume his being as he frees himself from the demons that have possessed him for so long.