A Horse Walks Into a Bar
Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
2017, pp. 208, $25.95
A Stand-Up Eulogy
by Frances Brent
The earliest comedy I remember with any clarity was created by a famous tragic clown, a circus performer whose painted mouth was perpetually turned down in a frown. Left out of the spotlight, he carried a sledgehammer and ran after the other clowns who wouldn’t have anything to do with him. You laughed, but you had to feel sorry for him. I was a small child looking at slapstick pantomime, but I understood the covenant at the center of great comedic performance: You have to let the comedian pass on the pain. His wit has been honed by suffering, and there’s wisdom to be gained from watching the antics. The Israeli writer David Grossman’s latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, is anchored in the same artistic tradition. Essentially a grand associative monologue, a stand-up routine—raw, seemingly extemporaneous, filled with self-loathing, cruelty, horror and grief—this short novel is a gift of pain, passed on by an imagined comedian to an imagined audience he’s provoking with a sledgehammer, and from there to the reader who submits to the bargain.
Grossman is the author of nine other novels (as well as many books of nonfiction, collected shorter pieces and children’s literature) translated into English, including his masterpiece, To the End of the Land (2010). Along with Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, he stands at the forefront of modern Israeli writing—pushing the boundaries of the reinvented language and literature, exploring ways in which the great themes of love and loss can be explored in the landscape of Jewish history and what Israelis call “the situation.” Grossman is especially well known for his ability to reach inside a character’s skin to explore patterns of thinking, secrets and fantasies, which he pokes at, like the boy in this book who rides in an old car and prods a finger through an upholstery hole until he detects foam rubber.
This new work opens as comedian Dovaleh G. enters—lurches, actually—onto an empty stage in a basement nightclub in the coastal city of Netanya and begins working the crowd with a barrage of insults, self-deprecating asides and a scatter of morbid jokes. But the novel’s framework is more complicated than it first appears. The story is told from the perspective of someone in the audience, Avishai Lazar, once a childhood friend, now a widower and retired judge. Known for his razor-sharp judgments, Avishai is both an interlocutor and a lens. The two men haven’t seen one another since they were together at Gadna, the camp where Israeli high school students get their first taste of the military. Avishai witnessed some terrible things that happened there to Dovaleh. As is common with young people, the details of what he saw remained unexamined. Now, he’s been invited to bear witness a second time: “I want you to see me,” Dovaleh says to him in front of the audience, “…and tell me what you saw.”
“Grossman reaches inside a character’s skin to explore patterns of thinking, secrets and fantasies, which he pokes at, like a boy who rides in an old car and prods a finger through an upholstery hole until he detects foam rubber.”
As it happens, it’s the comedian’s birthday, and he weaves his monologue back and forth from childhood memories to a set of barroom routines, sometimes on the mark and sometimes off, careening forward to the complexities of present-day Israel, Botox, witness protection and army checkpoints. He describes his father—who immigrated to Israel as a teenage pioneer before the war—an admirer of Jabotinsky and a “hardline revisionist,” and his mother, who remains permanently “unhinged” by her experiences during the Holocaust. He tells the audience about his strange childhood stunt of flipping himself upside down and walking on his hands. With that clownish inversion of reality, he transposed himself into the abused, “case-hardened” Dickensian tumbling boy and thus into a parable.
The comedian is thrown off-balance when a tiny and simpleminded woman who knew him as child repeatedly interrupts his stand-up routine. She witnessed his childhood in Jerusalem and corroborates his description of himself as the peculiar boy walking on his hands through the streets. Her interjections and stubborn corrections interrupt the pace of the show, causing him to veer from comedy to tragedy.
The book in many ways is an amalgam of fast-talking stand-up routines, Grossman’s beloved Sholem Aleichem and a large dose of Fyodor Dostoevsky. There’s a lot of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man here, with his rambling starts and stops, his world of neglect and abuse, his masochism tipping over to sadism, his shame inviting defeat, his assortment of stock characters and his narrative ambiguities. Dovaleh, Avishai and Grossman, all the same age but with radically different biographies, are independent from one another, and yet their experiences overlap. As alter egos, they are alternative dreams or reflectors of one another. So the comedian asks his childhood acquaintance to look at him and see his essence or, as it’s beautifully put in the novel, “the tremble of singularity.”
Grossman’s personal grief is the uninvited guest burrowed into this text. Grossman’s oldest son, Uri, died in Lebanon in August 2006, at the very end of the war between Israel and Hezbollah. His tragedy coexists with every twist and turn of the plot, including Avishai’s anguish over his wife’s death and the wrenching story of Dovaleh’s first funeral. Even as the comedian drenches himself in his suffering, the novelist’s grief is the ventriloquist behind the resonance of all his utterances. Partway through the novel, we find that Dovaleh himself may be dying. With his yellowed complexion, he’s skin and bones, a fragile and sinister death’s-head presiding over an Israeli audience that has experienced its own tragic sufferings and is bereft of innocence.
The novel exists, then, as layers of elegy and raises unanswerable questions: What do you do with loss? How do you recover from anger and the “toxic case of yearning” and the blotting out that comes from grief? Grossman’s characters are occasionally granted the solace of magical thinking. In this case, we find that the boy who walked with his feet in the air was once able to offer a defiant gift to a fellow sufferer, consoling her with a fairy tale that they lived a former life together “in the Holocaust… or in the Bible…” when she was a dancer and he was an actor on the stage.
In Grossman’s books, fantastic thoughts can be a balm, and so can beauty. Dovaleh tells his tragic story and it nearly extinguishes him, but along the way he comes upon one dazzling memory: “Remember those awesome marbles they used to have?” he says, asking his audience to think back to the marvelous objects of childhood play. “Remember that one with the butterfly inside? That’s the kind of marble she was, my mother.” Beneath the wretched wisecracking of this protagonist’s misery, Grossman leaves his readers with the crumb-comfort of that beautiful image, and it’s well worth the journey.
Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson. She’s a contributing editor at Modern Magazine and also writes about the arts for Tablet.