A Horse Walks Into a Bar, the 2017 Man Booker International Prize Winner, is a stunning account of a middle aged, washed up comedian’s stand up show, but there is so much more. Taking place in the Israeli city of Netanya, Dovaleh Greenstein has invited a high school friend from military camp, Avishai Lavar, to watch the performance and then let him know what he sees…the person he really sees. In the audience, in addition to Lavar, now a retired judge, there is an unusual woman from Dov’s old neighborhood in attendance, a little person who endured bullying all her life, and throughout the show interjects comments and contributes her recollections from childhood.
Dov starts out marginally funny, a bit mean with injected political commentary on the state of Israel and her relationship with surrounding countries. As he feeds off the energy of the audience he gains confidence and becomes focused on telling stories of his youth. He reveals in a joking kind of way the pain he felt as a young boy, small in stature, walking on his hands to avoid getting beat up but enduring hurtful slaps kicks and punches anyway. The small odd woman from his past doesn’t approve of his self deprecating act and refuses eye contact. Meanwhile, as he sits silently during the performance, the judge recalls his brief time with Dov when they were young and how he just observed the bullying and abuse Dov painfully endured without standing up for his friend.
Dov tells stories of how he tried to protect his Holocaust surviving mother, how his father beat him, how he felt like an embarrassment. The little woman reminded him of his kindness and strength as he goes down this depressing, yet life affirming path on stage and only a few of the diminishing crowd lingers. The comedy show turns into an autobiographical one man show and the audience, not getting what they came for continually thins out, but there are some who cannot resist the “temptation to look into another man’s hell”. This cathartic sharing of his background and past experiences allowed Dov to relive the pain and suffering he has endured over the years in front of an audience.
At times painful to read, Doveleh’s stories bring to light questions about being an active participant in advocacy or an ineffective observer. From Middle East relations to the Holocaust to bullying vs. kindness; what is our responsibility as an audience, a friend, a citizen? While some of the comedy club crowd questions the heavy performance that night, “People come here to have a good time, it’s the weekend, you wanna clear your head, and this guy gives us Yom Kippur.”, I believe Dov wants to be recognized for his suffering.
Author David Grossman does an exceptional job with his characters, giving the reader just enough to grasp who they are, flaws and all. His insights about society, Israel and life choices provide food for thought; I could not put this book down and highly recommend it for book clubs.
As seen on Goodreads:
The award-winning and internationally acclaimed author of the To the End of the Land now gives us a searing short novel about the life of a stand-up comic, as revealed in the course of one evening’s performance. In the dance between comic and audience, with barbs flying back and forth, a deeper story begins to take shape–one that will alter the lives of many of those in attendance.
In a little dive in a small Israeli city, Dov Greenstein, a comedian a bit past his prime, is doing a night of stand-up. In the audience is a district court justice, Avishai Lazar, whom Dov knew as a boy, along with a few others who remember Dov as an awkward, scrawny kid who walked on his hands to confound the neighborhood bullies.
Gradually, as it teeters between hilarity and hysteria, Dov’s patter becomes a kind of memoir, taking us back into the terrors of his childhood: we meet his beautiful flower of a mother, a Holocaust survivor in need of constant monitoring, and his punishing father, a striver who had little understanding of his creative son. Finally, recalling his week at a military camp for youth–where Lazar witnessed what would become the central event of Dov’s childhood–Dov describes the indescribable while Lazar wrestles with his own part in the comedian’s story of loss and survival.
Continuing his investigations into how people confront life’s capricious battering, and how art may blossom from it, Grossman delivers a stunning performance in this memorable one-night engagement (jokes in questionable taste included).