‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ by David Grossman (2014) – 194 pages Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
Here is an entertaining little novel which entirely takes place on stage with edgy professional comic Dov Greenstein performing his high-wire humor act. The comedian has invited his friend from childhood to watch the show. Thus we watch the performance through the eyes of this somewhat impartial observer.
Greenstein is performing his act in a nightclub in the small city of Netanya, Israel. The audience is ready for a night of light fun, and at first he gives them the jokes they want. He is a master of insults who wears his heart on his sleeve. This is a high-energy act with non-stop talking and jokes. Israeli writer David Grossman deftly captures what it must be like to stand in front of a crowd and to try to make them laugh. We also get a sense of the comedian’s self-loathing which seems to be inherent in most insult artists.
Some of the comic’s jokes delight the crowd, and some of them fall flat. However as the night progresses, the comedian goes back to his childhood for his material, and he veers into the terrible pain of his early life. He winds up relating one particularly horrific family event from back then in detail which makes everyone uncomfortable. Members of the audience become annoyed that our comic is no longer telling jokes, and many of them walk out in the middle of the act. The show goers did not come here tonight to deal with the comedian’s pain from his childhood, but that is what the comedian is compelled to give them.
“How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into its hostages?”
I had previously read only one of the earlier novels by David Grossman, ‘See Under Love’, which was moving, but did not prepare me for the gripping experience of reading this novel. ‘A Horse Walks Into a Bar’ is a tour de force that perfectly captures all of the color and excitement of this high-wire comedy act, the triumphs and setbacks and tears of this stand-up guy as he performs his act. It will go on my list as one of the best show business novels.
Grade : A