A Horse Walks Into a Bar, David Grossman, author; Joe Barrett, narrator, Jessica Cohen, translator
The book is well written, but I don’t think it will be universally enjoyed. I believe it is for a narrow audience that is familiar with Jewish humor and its universal ideas about guilt and shame. A stand-up comedian in his mid fifties, Dov Greenstein, is performing in a small nightclub that seems a bit second rate, in Netanya, Israel. He has invited a former school chum, a judge, to attend his performance as a special favor. He has not seen Ashivai Lazar for years, but he has followed his career. Dov has asked Ashivai to come to his performance and tell him honestly how he perceives him. In the audience, possibly by chance, there is also a woman who was a neighbor of his from his childhood. She is now a manicurist and a medium. He calls her Pitz. Each of these three characters has a defining characteristic which is important to the story. How does each of them “see” Dovela? How do they see themselves?
I did not find the story funny, although it features Dov’s entire stand up routine of the night. Interspersed between jokes Dovela relates’s, the background of his life. The two characters who knew him are privy to some of his memories and are affected by them, but the audience experiences frustration when the jokes stop and the monologue grows serious. Some get up and leave, some become drawn to his story. Readers will experience the same ups and downs. All will be forced to think about how things are perceived and how that perception shapes their lives and the lives of others.
This odd little book examines how we all see each other and ourselves. It examines how that perception effects how we all turn out. The humor is often dark and inappropriate. Dr. Mengele, “the angel of death” from the Holocaust Concentration Camp, Aushwitz, is referred to as his family doctor. His mother was a survivor who did not survive wholly well. It is intimated that she is emotionally unstable. Dov walked on his hands to escape from reality and to protect his mother from the stares of others. It drew attention away from her making him the subject of ridicule, instead. It offered him a way to escape from his life, as well. Upside down, he was smiling, not frowning. His father was a brute who physically abused him.
Dov’s jokes and language are crude, even vulgar. His physical description is unpleasant. His performance concerns subjects we don’t usually consider funny. He jokes about cancer, the Holocaust, death, sex and a horse that walks into a bar, which is a joke begun by a driver who is taking him to the funeral of someone who has not yet been identified to him, but he knows there has been some kind of a tragedy he will have to experience against his will.
All three of the people that the story focuses on have had difficulties because of how people saw them, without really seeing them. They made people uncomfortable. Was this performance meant to expose the shared frailties of everyone? He wonders what people think of when they see him! Do they really see him? Do we all wonder about that? I would describe the book as a comedy/tragedy. The reader will decide which takes precedence.