A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Uncomfortable pauses, dead jokes, and poor delivery are nothing compared to standup comic Dov Greenstein’s bouts of violent self-criticism. His audience shifts from perplexed to appalled as he slaps his head in disciplinary anguish, calling himself stupid when he misses a punchline or digresses from his bit. Mouths gape and people walk out, but those who remain are drawn in, mesmerized by this strange old man’s urge – and failure – to bring people joy. David Grossman’s spellbinding novel A Horse Walks into a Bar (winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize) situates readers in the back of a grimy comedy club in Netanya, Israel for an enchanting and confounding act. Dov’s routine shifts into a self-deprecating autobiography, interwoven throughout the night despite numerous distractions from hecklers in the audience.
The novel is narrated by Avishai Lazar, a retired judge, who is sitting in the crowd as a favor to Dov. They knew each other as children (they were taught by the same math tutor) but they grew apart after they both overlapped at Gadna, a military camp for boys. Something happened during training that pulled Dov out of camp, but no one particularly missed him, including the scads of boys who relentlessly teased him when he was around.
Lazar could hardly remember Dov, but an out-of-the-blue phone call sparks torrents of wistful memories. He was a boy who relished in a person’s laughter, and who didn’t care if that laughter was with him or at his expense. He could walk on his hands, and loped around with his feet in the air despite his father’s aggressive loathing of his clowning. After math class, Dov would giddily riddle Lazar with questions about his personal life, indirectly teaching him how he should view his experiences as treasures. They were stories to tell, “an enormous adventure.”
I quickly discovered that exaggerations were warmly welcomed; no pinpricks would deflate my hot-air balloons, and it turned out that I could and should tell each story over and over again with embellishments and plot twists, some that were real and others that could not have been. I did not recognize myself when I was with him. I did not recognize the enthusiastic, animated boy who emerged from me.
But, the heavy weight of time can change a person. About sixty years have passed since Lazar had even thought of Dov, and he suddenly he reaches out, asking him to see his comedy show. Memories of Dov come back, “his blue eyes, which were too large for his face and, together with his prominent lips, gave him the appearance of a strange duckling with sharp features. A quick, pulsing particle of life.” But frankly, Lazar is not interested in comedy. Still, Dov persists:
“I want you to look at me,” he spurted. “I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“What you saw.”
Grossman’s transcendent book elevates the concept of a character study with a remarkably theoretical analysis of the novel’s form and potential. By transforming his readers into comedy-club viewers, a resounding metafictional question rings out every time a patron of the club walks prematurely to the exit. Those viewers came to see jokes and were given instead a Proustian sluice of memories as if their events happened only yesterday. What about you, reader? Grossman repeatedly shows you the door throughout A Horse Walks into a Bar — why are you sticking around?
Because the joy of a novel isn’t just the story as it unfolds onstage, it’s everything else that comes with it. It’s the personal memories that are unearthed, triggered by hapless tangents and vague sensory illuminations. It’s the act of experiencing a story, not simply reading one — it’s you, sitting by the bar, wondering why you even came — learning something about yourself while you try to learn about somebody else. And you’re sharing that experience with a room full of strangers, or, transmitting connections to a thousand strangers in a thousand rooms, all somehow reading the same novel through their own unique experiential filters. Everyone trying not to laugh at the beautiful, heartbreaking empathy of it all.