Dovaleh Greenstein is 57 years old and a standup comic. And he steps on stage to give a performance of a lifetime, at a club in a small industrial-type town in Israel. It will be a performance no one expects, especially not the man Dovaleh has invited, almost begged to attend, a man he hasn’t seen in more than 40 years, when they were both young teens.
He takes the stage. He tells jokes. He tells stories. He insults the audience. He insults individual members of the audience. He goes off on wild tangents. If you’re in the audience, you might think your entertainment has been hijacked. If you’re the reader of A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen), you wonder if you’re going to be able to stand the comedy and the anger and the almost-manic monologues that seem to go on and on.
But, like the audience, you hang in there, the audience perhaps because it likes to be insulted, as long as it’s funny and entertaining (look, this guy even makes jokes about the Holocaust). The reader plods ahead, knowing that this novel won the 2017 Man Booker International Award and there must be a reason or reasons why it did, and knowing that Grossman has published a wide array of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction works.
Members of the audience begin to leave. Some stay. Some readers may quit. But if you continue, you begin to understand what is happening in this story, and what a truly extraordinary story it is. It’s going to smack you upside the head.
The pivotal player is not the man on the stage. No, that role belongs to the man invited to attend, Avishai Lazar, a retired judge. Still grieving the loss of his wife, he can’t quite believe he agreed to come. Several times he almost walks out. After all, he barely knew Dovaleh. And the last time he had seen him was when they were 13 and attending an Israeli Army camp for young people. Dovaleh had had to leave early, and no one, including Avishai, knew why. And that will become the point on which the story hinges.
You might, like I did, spend the first 40 to 50 pages telling yourself there must be something better to read, that you don’t really see where this story is going, and you’re getting put off by the constant stream of anger and insults, no matter how many jokes are mixed in. But then something happens, there is a shift that begins subtly and then builds, and you discover you’re captivated. Because it happens on stage, Grossman has written what is strikingly like a play, a play that gradually becomes mesmerizing.
A Horse Walks into a Bar will unlike anything you’ve read before. And if you persist, you will understand why it won the Man Booker award.
Top photograph by Oscar Keys via Unsplash. Used with permission.