From Shtick to Striptease

An Israeli Tragi-comedy With Universal Import

David Grossman's prose in his latest work about a not-so-amusing stand-up artist strains to keep up as the comic dodges and feints - and smacks his forehead.

Israeli author David Grossman after he received the Medicis Foreign book award for his novel "To the End of the Land" in Paris, on November 4, 2011.
Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

"A Horse Walks into a Bar," by David Grossman, English translation by Jessica Cohen, Knopf, 208 pages, $25.95.

This review was originally published in Feb 2017, and has been re-upped after David Grossman won the Man Booker International Prize

David Grossman’s latest book is not a comic novel, as its title might suggest, but a novel about a comic. Its protagonist and its author’s alter-ego, Dov Greenstein, 57, doesn’t tell jokes as much as he makes himself the joke. He is an embittered, agitated, stand-up jester – short, bespectacled, almost skeleton-thin – who in his freewheeling, confrontational way seeks the audience’s approval even as he is disgusted by it.

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The novel takes place over a single night in a small club in an acrid, airless basement in Netanya, which is located on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Dov begins his routine with off-color jokes in questionable taste – about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, for example – caustic jokes that cloak uncomfortable truths. “Take it from me, the best way to be appreciated somewhere is not to be there, you get me? Wasn’t that the idea behind God’s whole Holocaust initiative?”

By turns contemptuous and coquettish, Dov goads and insults his hecklers. “Well good evening, Mister Tony Soprano decked out in lemon meringue. Welcome to our humble abode, and may you have a very crystal nacht. I understand you’re in between medications at the moment, and just my luck, you had to choose this particular evening to get out for some fresh air!”

But after limbering up, Dov warms to his real subject. In fits and starts, he tells the story of his boyhood: the father — a barber and schmattes-man — who beat him; the Holocaust-haunted mother who still carries “all kinds of baggage from there”; their awkward, scrawny son who walked on his hands to confound the neighborhood bullies. No longer an actor, Dov takes shape before his audience as a man trapped in his own tragic tale.

Soon Dov’s shtick is no longer a comedy routine but a kind of emotional striptease — as irreverent as what went before — in which Dov pares himself down to his essentials.

The result is an unsettling, cathartic, confessional stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, an Israeli offspring of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground.”

As it tilts and teeters and quickens its tempo, the monologue proves as riveting as it is grim. If Dov is a master of stagecraft, Grossman is a master of physical description. The rush of Grossman’s prose — its frenetic energy and fluttering wordplay beautifully rendered in Jessica Cohen’s translation, due for release on February 21 in the United States — strains to keep up as the increasingly serious comic gesticulates, skips and darts around the stage, lurches and laughs joylessly, dodges and feints, stomps and staggers, wrings his hands and clenches his fists, smacks his forehead and bobs his head.

By now the audience of 60 or 70 has dwindled to a little more than a dozen. Spectators expecting escapist entertainment have long since walked out. “People come here to have a good time,” one mutters before heading for the exit, “it’s the weekend, you wanna clear your head, and this guy gives us Yom Kippur.” Most cannot bear to look into Dov’s wounds.

Yet the smaller the audience, the more intense the attention. As Dov becomes more present to himself, his audience — and Grossman’s — become unwilling partners to his virtuoso act, fascinated despite their aversion, like voyeurs in a freak show. As he tussles with the audience (and with himself), as he bridges the abyss between actor and audience, his onlookers sense that their own contradictions are being acted out on the stage.

In this theater of recognition, Grossman puts us in the audience, and makes us complicit to Dov’s antic self-lacerations. He does so by means of an ingenious device: He lets us see Dov’s routine through the eyes of the book’s first-person narrator, a retired district court judge named Avishai Lazar, who has a lifetime’s experience of sizing up people. Avishai and Dov, boyhood friends, hadn’t seen each other in more than four decades until Dov called Avishai and begged him to come to his show.

“I want you to see me,” Dov says, “really see me, and then afterwards tell me.” Tell him what, Avishai asks himself. “The radiance of a personality, I thought. The inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity That same thing that years ago, when I was just starting out as a judge, I naively swore to look for in every person who stood before me.”

Self-lacerating performance

The trembling secret that some internal urge is pushing Dov to unburden in public, to convey perfectly through his imperfect words, has its roots in a pre-army camp in the Negev, in southern Israel, which he and Avishai attended together as 14-year-olds.

At camp, Dov is brusquely called away; one of his parents has died. No one bothers, or dares, to tell him which parent’s funeral he must attend, and on the long drive north he is too afraid to ask.

“Between now and when the Be’er Sheva people tell me,” Dov thinks, “I can pretend nothing’s happened and everything is just like it was when I left home.”

Grossman has in other books put his characters through odysseys: Assaf’s quixotic expedition with a lost dog in “Someone to Run With”; a bar-mitzvah boy’s journey of self-discovery from Jerusalem to Haifa in “The Zigzag Kid.” But this funereal drive is more fraught with guilt than those. As he alternately summons memories of his father and mother, Dov believes that his thoughts can determine which parent has lived and which has died.

When “A Horse Walks into a Bar” came out in Hebrew in 2014, a critic writing in this newspaper called it “unlike anything Grossman has written.” This may be true of the book’s almost oppressive compactness. But the reader hears unmistakable echoes of the magical thinking in Grossman’s more expansive novel "To the End of the Land," in which Ora dreads the knock on the door that will notify her that her son, an Israeli soldier, has fallen in the line of duty. She is seized by the idea that as long as the notifiers can’t find her, as long as she keeps moving and keeps talking about him, her son will remain alive.

It is the burden of living with his choice that gives rise to Dov’s self-lacerating performance at the heart of this book. The reference points of that performance may be Israeli, but its import is universal.

In the end, the marrow of this accomplished and audacious novel, like so much of Grossman’s fiction, is laced with loss and leave-taking, and what we owe to it. It is impossible to think of any other Israeli writer who gives us not traumatic loss itself as much as the consciousness that broods on it.

In transmuting the thrum of that consciousness into something lyrical, Grossman has once more proved himself as one of Israel’s finest literary alchemists.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author of “Kafka’s Last Trial” (forthcoming from W.W. Norton).