A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
Knopf, 2017; 194 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
It’s a cliché that comedians become comedians because they’re seeking to fill a hole in their personal lives with the laughter of the audience. They seek the approval in their professional lives that they could never achieve in their personal ones. David Grossman uses this cliché as the engine of his manic new book, A Horse Walks into a Bar. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single stand-up set that doubles as a sort of nervous breakdown and catharsis for Dov Greenstein. Greenstein is an Israeli comedian in the winter of his career (and life), performing at a club in Netanya, a small city north of Tel Aviv.
The story is narrated by a childhood friend of Dov’s, who has been invited to the show in order to offer an honest opinion. Dov wants to be seen. Not in the way that an audience sees him; he wants someone to see the truth that exists inside of him. It’s pretty abstract. In the manic and self-abusive set that follows, Dov confronts many demons from his past, including some in the audience. The majority of the story is a monologue recounting a crucial moment in his life, balanced on the scaffolding of the beatings he suffered at the hands of his father as a child and the military camp he attended as part of his Israeli adolescence. The narrator attended the military camp with him and as Dov’s monologue advances, the narrator’s anxiety increases. Here Grossman hits it on the head. The third party empathic anxiety of a friend’s recollection of a painful memory is a real thing and Grossman captures the queasy energy of it beautifully. When it’s run its course, the reader is as exhausted as the fictional audience members who stuck around to listen to the story. Most of the audience members, however, didn’t stick around because Dov is not funny.
Dov not being funny is the novel’s major flaw. Grossman tries to punt on this issue by having the audience heckle him before eventually walking out because he’s not satisfying them as a comedian. He’s using comedy as a therapy session, with occasional ribald and mean-spirited vaudevillian jokes interspersing his flagellation. The problem here is that framing a novel using this device sets up false expectations that even the eventual emotional fulfillment can’t wallpaper over. It can’t even be properly identified as a problem, because the reader’s expectations are disappointed in the same manner as the audience in what can only be called a satisfyingly postmodern way. But also, aside from postmodern trickery, there’s no reason for the novel to not be funny. It’s the sacrifice of laughs for a glancing acknowledgment of cleverness of conceit, but in this, as in most cases, we’d rather have the laughs.