Fic­tion

A Horse Walks into a Bar

David Gross­man; trans. Jes­si­ca Cohen

  • Review
By – November 30, 2016

In recent years, acclaimed nov­el­ist David Grossman’s capac­i­ty for sur­pris­ing read­ers’ expec­ta­tions has come to seem lim­it­less. Not long after his incan­des­cent To the End of the Land, an epic fam­i­ly sto­ry many con­sid­er Israel’s defin­i­tive anti­war nov­el, Gross­man addressed his own grief in the wake of his 20-year-old son Uri’s death in the Sec­ond Lebanon War in Falling Out of Time. Though both nov­els address death and the cat­a­stro­phe of per­son­al loss, styl­is­ti­cal­ly they have lit­tle else in com­mon. Where­as To the End of the Land is in most respects a tra­di­tion­al” nov­el, set firm­ly in Israel’s his­tor­i­cal tur­moil and nat­ur­al land­scape, Falling Out of Time alto­geth­er eludes genre clas­si­fi­ca­tion. A tapes­try of poet­ry, dra­ma, and prose, its set­ting is a strange­ly time­less land­scape filled with wan­der­ing char­ac­ters strug­gling to cope with the unbear­able loss of their chil­dren. In his lat­est book, A Horse Walks Into A Bar, Gross­man once again address­es the inter­sec­tions of grief, soci­ety, and the indi­vid­ual, this time in a thor­ough­ly sly, round­about way, inge­nious­ly set­ting the nar­ra­tive in a comedian’s sin­gle dis­as­trous night­club appear­ance, a per­for­mance that begins on a rau­cous note of hilar­i­ty before veer­ing off into wild­ly unex­pect­ed terrain.

The novel’s chief pro­tag­o­nists are the fic­tion­al com­ic Dov Green­stein and a reluc­tant mem­ber of his audi­ence, Dis­trict Court Jus­tice Avishai Lazar. The two have not seen each oth­er since boy­hood, and Dov’s standup com­e­dy show pro­vides the unlike­ly occa­sion for their fraught reunion. Over the course of an increas­ing­ly tense evening, Gross­man gazes over the shoul­ders of the com­e­dy club’s audi­ence to observe these two char­ac­ters strug­gle to res­ur­rect mem­o­ries of their ear­li­er bond buried beneath the detri­tus of the long event­ful decades. Just who are they to one another?

After open­ing with a (thor­ough­ly Israeli) rou­tine of macho, rib­ald ban­ter, Dov’s sud­den refusal to deliv­er more humor grad­u­al­ly alien­ates his restive audi­ence. Soon, the com­ic seems alto­geth­er at war with his old fans, alter­na­tive­ly teas­ing, insult­ing, and cajol­ing them through­out a bewil­der­ing per­for­mance that ulti­mate­ly turns self-destruc­tive — or redemp­tive, depend­ing on the way one looks at it — evinc­ing the genius of Dov’s artis­tic con­trol and its wrench­ing loss. Mean­while, Avishai’s child­hood mem­o­ries of Dov’s mis­treat­ment at the hands of child­hood bul­lies pro­vide jar­ring inter­ludes, rever­ies cul­mi­nat­ing in a remote desert pre-mil­i­tary youth camp where trag­ic events cause the staff to hasti­ly arrange Dov’s return home with­out dis­clos­ing what awaits him.

In one of these flash­backs, young Dov is dis­tract­ed by the reck­less­ness of the jeep’s dri­ver, in spite of his grow­ing anx­i­ety on the long desert dri­ve: what a ter­ri­ble dri­ver he is, how he’s veer­ing all over the place, onto the shoul­ders, into every pot­hole.” That may very well be Grossman’s sly metafic­tion­al wink at the read­er, for A Horse Walks Into A Bar cer­tain­ly takes its own detours, twists, and turns. Though the des­ti­na­tion may seem elu­sive for many pages, how­ev­er, every dis­qui­et­ing moment of this increas­ing­ly inward jour­ney height­ens the novel’s psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­pense and ulti­mate­ly proves reward­ing. And pre­cise­ly when Dov is seen at his most vul­ner­a­ble, Gross­man intro­duces a sec­ond audi­ence mem­ber who knew Dov, a tiny mys­te­ri­ous woman whose own trag­ic and qui­et­ly hero­ic role is revealed to mem­o­rable effect.

Though the tor­ment­ed comic’s audi­ence large­ly aban­dons him by the end of this train­wreck of an evening, Grossman’s for­tu­nate read­ers will like­ly be utter­ly trans­fixed. There are moments when the comic’s abra­sive qual­i­ties resem­ble that of Israel itself, bear­ing its weighty load of armor — what Gross­man once called the sense of per­ma­nent guard duty, the heavy bur­den of being an ene­my at all times” — to such a degree that its wit­ness­es lose sight of their own human nature. Antic­i­pat­ing jokes and gags, the audi­ence turns squea­mish and then out­right hos­tile when con­front­ed with the naked tur­moil and pain of a man’s life instead.

By the end of this raw and grip­ping nov­el, read­ers may be left won­der­ing whether this emo­tion­al­ly sear­ing per­for­mance piece by a fal­ter­ing stage com­ic is not a sly alle­go­ry about the nov­el­ist, or indeed any artist, brave enough to smug­gle in some bru­tal truth with their art. Might this demand­ing and cen­so­ri­ous audi­ence not be a sur­ro­gate for the increas­ing­ly unre­cep­tive Israeli pub­lic, immured against cer­tain hard truths and impa­tient with Grossman’s con­sci­en­tious role as a wit­ness to incon­ve­nient real­i­ties of his country’s injus­tices? Hint­ing at but ulti­mate­ly refus­ing to direct­ly answer such ques­tions, A Horse Walks Into A Bar con­sis­tent­ly fas­ci­nates, thanks in no small part to trans­la­tor Jes­si­ca Cohen’s daz­zling ren­der­ing of the col­lo­qui­al rhythms of Grossman’s prose.

Mark Twain’s famous adage Humor is tragedy plus time” has inspired the imag­i­na­tions of many artists; only rarely has it been turned inside out to such mem­o­rable effect. Gross­man por­trays the col­lapse of Dov’s crass and cal­cu­lat­ed­ly cyn­i­cal stage demeanor to reveal a deeply wound­ed and trou­bled psy­che it once protected.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

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