Last Comic Standing

Why is a good novel like a joke? Before you think too hard, relax: there’s no single punch line here. I’m simply drawing attention to what might be a fruitful comparison. Like a joke, a good novel ...
Linda_Two horses walk into a bar...

Why is a good novel like a joke? Before you think too hard, relax: there’s no single punch line here. I’m simply drawing attention to what might be a fruitful comparison. Like a joke, a good novel brings relief or provides escape. Both might make us laugh. Both upend audience assumptions. And both often find similarity in difference. A joke that opens with the line “A horse walks into a bar” places us in a world in which it is not abnormal for horses to do so. When the bartender asks, “Why the long face?” we are surprised not only by how ridiculous it is for the horse to be there, but also by how mundane it is for the bartender; in this world, horses aren’t so different from people after all. Good novels, like jokes, force us to rethink what we thought we knew, and to open our imaginations to new empathetic possibilities.

As its title suggests, David Grossman’s excellent new novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar—deftly translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, and shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize—asks to be compared to a joke. Taking place during a single stand-up routine at an Israeli dive bar, it is rich with reinterpretation and seems to generate much of its power through the clever use of opposites: familiar and bizarre; controlled and unrestrained; punchy and meditative; and, perhaps most rewardingly, slapstick and sorrowful.

The protagonist of A Horse Walks into a Bar is aging comedian Dovaleh G, the stage persona for Dov Greenstein, and perhaps an alter ego for the novelist himself, whose initials also happen to be D. G. Dovaleh is delivering what we come to suspect will be his final performance. The narrator tells us, “He is a sick man. Very sick, maybe.” And, given Dovaleh’s “skeletal features,” his “horrific thinness,” and his crude jokes about prostates and cancer, we can guess he doesn’t have much time left. To his audience’s evident dismay, the story he tells them is no laughing matter. He recounts being called out of a lineup at a military youth camp, as a boy of 14, to be rushed to the sudden funeral of one of his parents. No one thinks to tell the stunned boy which parent has died, and it’s the resulting ordeal, an hours-long period of fearful unknowing spent at the side of a military driver who insists on trying to make him laugh, that casts its shadow over Dovaleh’s subsequent life, inflicting a lasting psychological wound but also inspiring him to become a stand-up comedian.

Much of the novel’s power rests in its structural ingenuity: it is narrated not by Dovaleh himself but by a member of the audience, Avishai Lazar, a retired judge who, years earlier, was at the same youth camp when the events Dovaleh recounts took place. Years later, out of the blue, Avishai receives a phone call from the comic, who, after reintroducing himself, hits him with a puzzling request: “I want you to look at me,” Dovaleh says. “I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.” “Tell you what?” Avishai asks, to which Dovaleh only responds, “What you saw.”

Grossman’s new novel suggests that other people’s memories can weigh on us as heavily as our own.

Dovaleh’s request sets up the novel’s most striking binary: performer and critic. In many ways, the two men seem to be opposites. Dovaleh has spent his life on the comic stage; Avishai has spent his on the judicial bench. Dovaleh is drawn to vulgar humor; Avishai’s instinct is to shy away from crudeness. Yet, as the novel progresses, Avishai’s assumptions are built up and knocked down. As he reinterprets what he knows about Dovaleh, we come to see that they’re not so different after all.

This structure, in which one character reveals his or her own consciousness by narrating another’s story, recalls several other great literary pairings: Marcel and Swann in Proust’s Swann’s Way, Zuckerman and the Swede in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Elena and Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. But Grossman introduces a striking innovation. While those other narrators seem willing to plumb and reveal their pasts, Avishai makes clear that his memories are being forced upon him. When Dovaleh first calls, Avishai refuses to remember him. “How can you not remember?!” Dovaleh complains. “You blocked me out.” Next, he resists Dovaleh’s request to see the show. Once there, Avishai responds to what Dovaleh says with shock: “How did his frenetic chatter and nervous jokes affect me the way strobe lights affect an epileptic? How did I keep turning inward, to my own life?”

The novel’s form mimics one of its major themes: how trauma, both personal and cultural, imposes itself upon us, despite our best efforts to keep it at bay. Avishai is unable to escape Dovaleh’s imposition, just as Dovaleh is unable to throw off the burden of his childhood trauma, just as Dovaleh’s mother, a Holocaust survivor whose story he returns to throughout the routine, was unable to escape her trauma, and placed its burden, in turn, on Dovaleh. The novel suggests that other people’s memories can weigh on us as heavily as our own. Sooner or later, it seems to be saying, we all must come to feel each other’s pain.

But as much as this novel is about interconnectedness and shared suffering, it’s also about the very personal reckoning one carries out in the face of death. Dovaleh’s been busy dying ever since the day he was thrust into adulthood. Onstage, he paints a picture of a life spent taking stock:

Since that day, and to this day, I’ve always been a barely fourteen-year-old douche bag with shit where his soul should be, sitting in that truck doing his rotten accounting, and it’s the most fucked-up, twisted accounting a person can make in his life. … I learned what a person is and what he’s worth.

Though the conceit of the book bears obvious resemblance to Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, in which the death of the artist is dramatized and even brought on by his art, Dovaleh’s obsession with publicly accounting for his life also calls to mind an even more revealing literary predecessor: the medieval morality play Everyman. Everyman, whose very name reveals the universality of his circumstance, is summoned by Death “to give a reckoning,” to “show / Thy many bad deeds, and good but a few; / How thou hast spent thy life and in what wise.”1 Wary of facing this reckoning alone, he begs various allegorically named friends to accompany him, to little avail. Unwilling to follow him all the way, they abandon him one by one, until only his true friend, Good Deeds, remains. (Can you guess the moral?)

Dovaleh’s performance of reckoning is also an attempt to get his audience to accompany him, but they too refuse: bored, discomfited, or sobered by his story, table by table they give up and leave the club. Only Avishai remains to hear Dovaleh’s funereal closing lines. “This concludes the ceremonials,” he calls into the empty room. There’s no pat lesson here, only Dovaleh’s loneliness, and his last attempts at humorous self-effacement.

Like a joke, A Horse Walks into a Bar teaches us only to the extent that it undermines itself. It’s a morality play with a bizarre laugh track, Everyman performed with a wink by Louie C. K. It shows us death through a funhouse mirror: we see our own long faces, and, uncomfortably, we laugh. icon

  1. Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, edited by A. C. Crawley (Dutton, 1959), p. 210.
Photograph by Linda / Flickr