Most of us have experienced that nauseating awkwardness - the physically agonizing discomfort - of sitting through a comedy show that’s just not going right. That shifting in the seat when a joke falls flat. That cacophonous cough when a pun doesn’t receive the laughing track that was anticipated. Nobody characterizes that experience better than David Grossman in his most recent novel, A Horse Walks Into A Bar. Translated from Hebrew, this novel recounts the sometimes-magical-sometimes-excruciatingly-unsuccessful final standup of Dov Greenstein, an Israeli comic at a dive bar in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. Over the course of his two-hour act, sprinkled with Holocaust jokes and ‘humorous’ stabs at the audience, Dov relates the battered tale of his life — what’s led him to his disturbed state, as a comedian today.
Through a crisis of a comedy performance, Dov recaps the misery of his existence: his disordered relationship with his parents; his loneliness as a child; his life as that weird guy. And while there are actual moments of magic, ones acknowledged by audience member Avishai, a retired judge and childhood friend of Dov, the show is mostly a crap shoot. Few audience members stick around until the end of the show, but Avishai - who ultimately recognizes that Dov is fatally ill; who knew Dov but was unaware of his messed up history; whose ‘job’ as a audience member is to report to Dov ‘what he sees’ in the man on stage - is one of the audience members who stay.
So really, it’s a show of humanity. A grotesque, circus-like exhibition of something human, something real.
David Grossman is a master of this — transcribing the real onto the written page. As an Israeli myself, the sound of Grossman’s name is familiar in my household. He’s one of the most renowned Israeli authors; his novels and short stories have amassed a number of honors, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Sapir Prize, and others. His works have also been translated into more than 30 languages.
I have to admit, I’ve always been hesitant of reading translated works. I recognize the weight a writer places on each word, constructing a sentence mindfully, like stringing together the pieces of a puzzle. At least that’s how I write. But even translated, Grossman’s writing is uniquely profound — a poetic colloquialism. He’s masterful at the slow drip of information, the way something unabashedly, crudely, grotesquely true begins; you start seeing the shape of something candid behind the veil of performance.
Grossman’s writing allows you to hear Dov’s stand-up performance, feel its knee-jerk awkwardness, as if you’re there in real time. As Avishai himself professes, the whole standup, Dov is “veering off an internal detour,” (109). Telling a tasteless Holocaust joke, hearing it deflate, and diving into a tangent about his mother’s experience in a train car during World War II. You read and you hear the scattered chuckles from an audience unsure of how to gauge a performer: the response to a stand-up treading the elusive line between too far and just far enough. And that story-telling ability is distinctly Grossman (or Dov?), even in translation.
So that discomfort that Grossman achieves? It works. The novel reads quickly, conversationally. The characters are human, the stories are human, and its humanity is pretty captivating. I had a tough time putting this book down.