Year 3 / Book 4: A Horse Walks Into A Bar

4) A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

This was so heavily recommended in the end-of-year books of 2017 round-ups that I put it on the Christmas list; Santa delivered, and here we are. It’s a novel about an Israeli stand-up comedian, and is set over the hour and a half or so of his ‘set’ in a club in the run-down city of Netanya. Gradually, as time goes on and his set continues, Dovaleh Greenstein tells fewer jokes and more of his life story, and it becomes apparent that this is far from a standard comedy set. The comedian has also invited a friend from childhood (who went on to become a judge) as a sort of witness, storyteller, foil and prop all in one.

Needless to say, this isn’t just a novel about the personal disintegration of a stand-up comedian, it covers a huge amount of territory about Israel itself: the politics, the history, the geography, the contradictions and the conflicts. Despite this, at times, it is very funny (I read one review that said it wasn’t funny at all which made me question either my or the reviewer’s sense of humour), as well as off-colour, challenging, offensive and needling. Dovaleh is simultaneously unlikeable and deeply sympathetic, which is no small feat on Grossman’s part, and his story is engrossing and engaging. The denouement, revealing the key moments which defined his life, is pretty heart-rending.

The other brilliant thing that Grossman has done is somehow create within the novel the feeling of being enclosed and trapped in; I assume this is partly metaphorical but is also directly evocative of basement comedy clubs with low ceilings, sweat dripping from the ceilings and the feeling that one can’t escape when it’s going awry. The unspoken, unstated interactions between the comedian and various people in the audience raises questions, and there is a broader backdrop of more ‘standard’ comedy club audience members (the heckler, the people who laugh at the things that no-one else does, the people who are easily offended, the people who like the offensive jokes and so forth).

It’s not an easy read – I felt a bit like I’d been holding my breath reading it, especially in the last 20 or 30 pages – and if you are one of those comedy club audience members who are easily offended, it might not be for you. But it’s compelling and troubling, and has left me pondering not only the politics and situation of that region, but also the role of humour as a defence (and attack) mechanism, and how events at an early age can shape the course of people’s lives. Which is not a bad outcome from less than 200 pages.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW: A Horse Walks into a Bar

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