Wednesday, 28 June 2017

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett ( author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: Well, I rattled through this one. A Horse Walks into a Bar is a book that grabs you and takes you with it whether you want to go or not. And some of the time I wasn’t sure if I did want to go. Dov G is an Israeli comedian of the type that insults his audience – think Lennie Bruce but not so blue, or Frankie Boyle but not so political. He homes in on his audience’s frailties and picks at scabs – both theirs and his own.

His old friend from schooldays, now a retired Judge, has come to Netanya to see Dov’s performance. The pair haven’t seen each other for 40 years but Dov has begged the Judge to come and tell him what he sees. Is there something in everyone that cannot be hidden? If so, the Judge with his experience of studying defendants will be able to see it. In the crowd is a tiny woman who also knew Dov as a child. He was nice to her then but isn’t now. She cries at his barbed comments but refuses to leave.

When the jokes come they are not always funny and even when they are there is an unpleasant background taste. Along with his stand-up Dov tells the tale of how he went to his first funeral, even though he didn’t know who had died. The audience get restless; some leave. Those remaining call for more laughs. This is not what they paid to see.

While Dov strips himself and the crowd bare, the Judge recalls his own shameful part in an incident for which he is sure Dov will excoriate him before long. He also reminisces about his dead wife. He eats and drinks but cannot seem to fill himself up.

Dov’s jokes get fewer and less funny and more people leave. The tables in the supper club are emptying. The tiny woman, Pitz, is still there and a few other stalwarts. Dov punches himself, punishes himself, makes himself bleed. The revelation of the cause of his self-hatred is not totally unexpected but still, it could have been otherwise. He wipes the sweat from his brow, says ‘Goodnight Netanya’ to the almost empty club, and finishes what is probably his last ever performance.

This is an unusual and brilliant book. The stage show is presented visually so that we see Dov’s very physical performance. We feel his sweat and his pain. We dislike him but cannot stop watching him. Ultimately, there may be some kind of redemption – for him and the Judge.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Investigations into mental and physical pain.

Avoid if you dislike: Watching a man having a breakdown on stage.

Ideal accompaniments:
A nip of ‘Milk’ out of Dov’s big red flask.

Genre: General/Literary Fiction

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