A Horse Walks Into a Bar, by David Grossman, was the Man Booker International Prize winner for 2017. The book presents an evening performance by comedian Dovaleh G, in the town of Netanya, Israel. The story is narrated by an old friend of Dovaleh’s, Avishai Lazar, who has been invited to the evening for reasons which are initially unclear.
The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.
A Horse Walks into a Bar is a shocking and breathtaking read. Betrayals between lovers, the treachery of friends, guilt demanding redress. Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dovaleh G provokes both revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance.
This is a book about a comedian, but it’s anything but a light-hearted, easy read. It takes the format of one long observation, assessing the evening from the initial opening lines and watching it unravel towards the close of the performance.
Dovaleh is not a likeable character, opening the night with rude, cheap jokes. He plays with the audience – as Avishai observes, he ‘….clearly [enjoys] the confusion he shows.’
As the night progresses, the semblance of comedy falls away; and the audience is drawn into Dovaleh’s redemptive reflections on old wounds that have haunted him since his teenage years. His story is often raw and frequently shocking; and he walks a fine line between holding, losing and disgusting the audience.
A Horse Walks into a Bar is not broken up by chapters, and this format allows the reader to be fully immersed in, and really feel, the spiralling and unravelling performance. The descriptions of the physicality of Dovaleh and various members of the audience also contribute to the story. At one point, we read about how Dovaleh, after a particularly draining section, gradually unfolds his body from its position on stage:
“He gets up. Quietly gathers his limbs from the floor one after the others – arm, leg, head, hand, buttocks – like someone picking up scattered articles of clothing.”
A Horse Walks into a Bar is a short book that packs a hell of a punch – emotionally draining and uplifting, all at once.