Roger Brunyate's Reviews > A Horse Walks into a Bar

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
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it was amazing
bookshelves: comedy-sorta, israel, top-ten-2017

The Last Stand-Up

So this comedian walks into a club. It's Netanya, Israel, not the audience he would have chosen, but hey, a gig's a gig. So he insults them a little, flatters them a little, tells a few one-liners, and soon they are eating out of his hand. Doveleh G's been doing this for 40 years; he knows his job. So does veteran Israeli author David Grossman who, aided by his splendid translator Jessica Cohen, captures the scene perfectly. Not just the jokes and routines, but the roller-coaster trajectory of the comic's relationship with the crowd, almost losing them one moment, winning them back the next. And the slow, sad attrition as people get up to go, leaving the club to an audience of those who have become interested in the performer, not as a comedian, but as the storyteller of his life. They will hear him out to the end. And among them is the reader; this is truly a book you can not put down.
“I don’t know how to say this without offending the new anti-Semites, God forbid, but for fuck’s sake, people, don’t you think your attitude is just a little bit grating? ’Cause sometimes I get the impression that if, let’s say, an Israeli scientist came up with a cure for cancer, right? A medicine that would finish off that cancer once and for all? Well, then I guarantee you the next day people all over the world would start speaking out and there’d be protests and demonstrations and UN votes and editorials in all the European papers, and they’d all be saying, ‘Now wait a minute, why must we harm cancer? And if we must, do we really need to completely annihilate it right off the bat? Can’t we try and reach a compromise first? Why go in with force straightaway? Why not put ourselves in its shoes and try to understand how cancer itself experiences the disease from its own perspective? And let’s not forget that cancer does have some positives. Fact is, a lot of patients will tell you that coping with cancer made them better people. And you have to remember that cancer research led to the development of medications for other diseases—are we just going to put an end to all that, in such a destructive manner? Has history taught us nothing? Have we forgotten the darker eras? And besides’ ”—he adopts a contemplative expression—“ ‘is there really anything about man that makes him superior to cancer and therefore entitled to destroy it?’ ”
This comes from near the beginning, when Dov is riding high. The theme of Jewish self-deprecation, which he calls the new anti-Semitism, is a familiar one from writers like Philip Roth or Howard Jacobson, but Grossman's Dov has a particularly sharp way of addressing it. He is even more vitriolic against his own people in a routine about kicking Palestinians around, but on the whole he stays clear of politics. All the same, this is a very Israeli book, because both Dov and his audience have grown up there, been to similar schools and camps, done the same military service. I am sure there are many references that I haven't picked up, but that did not lessen my involvement.

Fairly near the start, we get a shock. The word "I" enters the picture; the anonymous narrator isn't anonymous anymore. We realize that Dov is being observed by someone sitting alone in the shadows near the back. I will let Grossman reveal at his own pace who this observer is—he will be quite touchingly realized in his own right—except to say that it is a figure from the comedian's childhood, whom he has invited to attend. Gradually, the routine will turn into the story of Dov's younger life, and this witness is essential to what he is trying to do. It turns out that there is another person in the audience who knew Dov back then, an older woman who has come to surprise him. But he insults her mercilessly, to stop her calling up the good side of him that he would prefer to deny in his self-lacerating humor and at times the physical blows he rains upon his face and body.

When I quoted the passage above about the new anti-Semitism, I was just looking for an entertaining and representative sample. But it occurs to me now that the theme of self-deprecation, even self-hatred, is central to the novel. More than a comedian's shtick, it is part of Dov's personal tragedy. However, I suspect that Dov also represents a whole generation of postwar Israelis. His driven, authoritative father is a pioneer who emigrated in the 1930s; his reticent and devoted mother is a Holocaust survivor; do they perhaps represent opposing attitudes in Israeli society? Not that it really matters, for in the last quarter of the novel, as we are drawn into a nail-biting scenario in which Dov is in effect forced to choose between them, it is not as a symbol that he moves us, still less as a stage performer, but simply as a human being.

P.S. The horse who walked into the bar? That is just about the only joke in the book that is cut off before reaching the punchline. The others are intact, and—whether corny, cutting, or ribald—they are often very funny.


My Top Ten list this year is selected from a smaller than usual pool. I really only started reading again in May, and even then deliberately kept new books to under 50% of my total. In compiling the list, I also did not exactly follow my original star ratings, but rather the takeaway value after time has passed. In particular, there are two books, Lincoln in the Bardo and Go, Went, Gone) to which I gave only 4 stars, but which I recognize as important books, with more staying power than many that I enjoyed more at the time, but have since forgotten.

For some reason, three of the ten books (Forest Dark, A Horse Walks into a Bar, and Three Floors Up) are by Jewish authors, set in Israel. To those, I would add a fourth: Judas by Amos Oz, read at the same time and of similar quality, but actually published at the end of 2016.

The ten titles below are in descending order (i.e. with The Essex Serpent being my favorite). The links are to my reviews:

1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
2. Autumn by Ali Smith
3. Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
4. The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
5. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
6. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
7. Exit West by Moshin Hamid
8. Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo
9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
10. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

And half that number again that didn't quite make it, in alphabetical order by authors:

11. Souvenirs dormants by Patrick Modiano
12. All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
13. Improvement by Joan Silber
14. Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
15. Rose & Poe by Jack Todd
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Reading Progress

July 5, 2017 – Shelved
July 5, 2017 – Shelved as: own-unread
July 8, 2017 – Started Reading
July 8, 2017 – Shelved as: comedy-sorta
July 8, 2017 – Shelved as: israel
July 8, 2017 – Finished Reading
December 30, 2017 – Shelved as: top-ten-2017

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Angela M (new)

Angela M Five stars and a fabulous review- I guess I need to add it .

Roger Brunyate Go for it, Angela! But be warned, there is the full range of ratings out there on this one, even from people with whom we normally agree. R.

Jill I have heard people of color say "everything is about race." Maybe so. Maybe a book by an Israeli writer must be tethered to "opposing attitudes in Israeli society" and perhaps your read of this book is more astute than mine. But I focused in on a man who was falling apart, possibly dying, and needed affirmation and self-forgiveness. As a reader, I wanted to step in and stop the careening train of self-laceration. I saw the key question as this: we all perform, some more than others, but what happens when the performance is stripped away and we reveal who we are? Whatever interpretation, I think this book was wonderful.

Roger Brunyate All you say is true, about the man falling apart, self-lacerating, and so on. But I also kept on asking how this would be different if it were Britain or America? What would be lacking, I think, is the weight of the past; the time in question is, after all, second generation Israel, when all sorts of basic things were still being worked out. While the abusive father and retiring mother are indeed universal types, the backgrounds from which they come are unique to the history of their people, and the pressures on their son are national as well as familial. I think that in Israel the questions "Who are we?" and "By what principles should we live?" are quite simply inescapable. R.

Jill You may well have a point. I could see the story playing out if the characters were black or Latino. There would be changes of course and it would be interesting to explore what would change

Roger Brunyate Many changes, but yes. I would have to review my modern history, but what seems unique about Israel is that it was founded partly to fill a need, partly to uphold an ideal. But that ideal has not proved all that easy to define, and the needs have changed….

What is brilliant here, anyway, is (a) Grossman's insight that stand-up comedy can be used to explore very serious issues, whether societal or personsl, and (b) his absolute mastery at carrying it off. R.

Jill My belief is that the ideal is way secondary to the need to survive. In addition, Orthodox is almost a different religion than Conservative or Reform -- which makes defining an ideal nearly impossible.

And yes, I was amazed at Grossman's understanding of the art of stand-up comedy. I believe this is his very best book.

Elyse Walters The play is being performed in Israel...
I hope it comes to the States.

Love.your ‘reading list’ of ‘new’ books you chose to read!

Enjoyed your review & dialogue with Jill.

Roger Brunyate Thank you, Elyse. I am not surprised that this was on your radar! R.

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