A Horse Walks into a Bar: A Novel

  • By David Grossman
  • Knopf
  • 208 pp.
  • Reviewed by Rafael Alvarez
  • May 17, 2017

A disarming, discomfiting story of laughs and loss.

I have never read a book like this, or even thought that one could exist. Maybe that’s because Buddy Hackett never wrote his autobiography.

From concept to execution (was it imagined whole or did the squeamishly discomfiting tale emerge in waves that startled the author?), in A Horse Walks into a Bar, David Grossman has created a hard, fast, and bumpy ride through the deserts of Israel and the soul.

Call it a 10-car pileup masquerading as a man’s life. At the wheel and in the spotlight: a half-tummler/half-nebbish comic weirdo named Doveleh Greenstein.

Dov, just like Grossman, along with Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, holds a mighty corner in the triangle of revered Israeli novelists. Select another three — Navah Semel, say, and two more female writers from “the Land” — lay their triangles upside down upon Grossman’s, and you’ve got a literary Star of David.

Dov is a standup comic, the punchline to his own pathetic life as he pounds himself in the face onstage, breaking his glasses and drawing blood between Catskills schtick and Freudian complaint.

And while he’s a veteran of the laughs game — a 57-year-old well-practiced in telling jokes of the “a horse walks into a bar” variety (only more vulgar) — Dov has chosen this night to share the sad and troubling story of his life.

“Wait patiently, my friends, because this is a story that, honest to God, I have never told in a show,” says Dov at a club in Netanya, the Israeli equivalent of Akron. “Never told it to a single person, and tonight it’s going to happen.”

But people don’t pay good money to hear what you can get for a buck at a 12-step meeting. They want laughs at the end of a hard week. If their funny bone is not tickled, they grumble and leave. Which is what Dov’s audience does, in twos and threes, with each recounting of his childhood humiliations.

By the end of the show (and the end of the book), only a handful of people remains: a female dwarf who knew the comic in childhood as “a good boy,” the narrator (a retired judge named Avishai Lazar who briefly hung out with Dov decades ago), a waitress, and one or two others who cannot bring themselves to walk out.

Grossman’s most impressive feat in this novel, his 11th, is a kind of neatly turned double-play. For while Dov’s performance sags beneath a labyrinth of digressions, the novel remains independent — at times buoyantly so — of those same digressions which are the book.

In the middle of Dov’s alleged “act,” someone in the crowd shouts down a disgruntled heckler: “Let him tell his story already!”

I agree.

A slight child beaten by his father; an intelligent child devoted to his mother, unable to un-see the scars on her wrists — the place of the pulse — where a doctor saved her life with stitches but could not save her from herself. Nor could Dov, no matter how many living-room shows he put on for her.

“The boy,” says the little person who knew him in childhood, “who walked on his hands.”

How to keep your old man from thrashing you?

Walk on your hands.

What to do when he beats you for walking on your hands?

You’ve got to hear it from Dov; hear it from Grossman. For if the D.G. of the story is supposed to be the D.G. who wrote the story, the pair seems to share but one quality: pain, that dependable staple of comedy.

In 2006, Grossman’s 20-year-old son Uri — a staff sergeant in the Israeli army — was killed when his tank was hit by Hezbollah missiles while on patrol in the Lebanese village of Hirbet K’seif. 

Is it funny “ha-ha” you want, or funny “strange”? How about the zinger that keeps you up at night measuring the distance between “what” and “what if”? Less than two days after Uri Grossman was killed, Israel and Hezbollah called a cease-fire. The young man had three months left to complete his service.

In “Quadrophenia,” the Who’s 1973 double-album about an English teenager — a “mod” in the fashion of early-1960s Britain — the protagonist demands with the first chord of the opera: “Can you see the real me?”

Thus does A Horse Walks into a Bar begin, when Dov calls Lazar a week or two before the Netanya gig and invites him to the show. They have not seen one another since summer camp, so long ago that the judge has trouble placing the caller. And even more difficulty trying to fathom a motive for the invitation.

“I want you to see me,” Dov says. “And tell me what you see.”

Not the dare of “Can you?” But the plea of “I want you.”

Recently widowed and stuck in an ongoing grief almost three years old, Lazar begs off. And with good reason.

Because, in the end, what Lazar sees is himself. As will you, no matter what side of the bully pulpit you were on — in front, behind, or watching from the sidelines, wishing you were invisible — all those years ago.

Rafael Alvarez writes from Baltimore. His new collection of short stories, Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, will be released in the fall of 2017. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.

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