This remarkable novel sat on my pile for nearly a year, even though I am a great fan of the prolific, award-winning Israeli writer, David Grossman. Why? The title did not appeal. And the story, encompassing one night’s stand-up comic performance, so it seemed, was off-putting to me. Talk about judging a book by its cover, and, as is usually the case, a huge mistake.
This particular comedian is well passed his prime and has set about this one night to make things right for himself. He has arranged a performance in a small city in Israel, the finale for a diminishing career, for purpose not entirely clear, and he has enlisted the support of a childhood friend, now a revered, recently retired, District Court Judge, whom he asks to come to this performance to serve as witness. But to what? And the judge himself, mourning his wife, has come to question his own existence in the larger world.
I knew all this time that he wouldn’t let me get out of here easily. That the whole business, the invitation and the ridiculous request, was a trap, his private revenge, a trap I walked into like an idiot.
David Grossman knows how to weave a story. What you might call a tour-de-force in less than two hundred pages. If you haven’t yet read To the End of the Land, start there. A masterpiece, featuring one of the most compelling heroines in modern fiction. However, the two novels are so completely different in style and content, you would never suspect they were written by the same author.
A Horse Walks Into a Bar reveals a difficult, deeply bonded, perhaps somewhat dysfunctional relationship with the comic’s parents, a relationship that is tested one week at a summer military youth camp. This is the place where the comic and the judge once crossed paths and where tragedy struck – the defining moment of the comic’s life and, surprisingly, in a far different way, also for the judge. In the audience the night of the standup: the judge, hecklers who demand humor, members of the crowd encouraging the comic to examine the lifelong reverberation of that summer, and a few who seem to have a personal interest in the comic’s personal reparation.
Here’s the thing: within the despair and anger, the horrors of a moment that forever alters a life, there is incredible humor. Laugh out loud humor. In a lengthy monologue [honestly, how does this literary novelist master comic timing so well?] peppered with flashback and psychological and emotional contemplation, within the humor and strain, the questioning of an entire existence, the judge comes to realize he is there for a larger purpose, and the audience is treated to an extraordinary all-nighter in comedy theater, until, in truth, the last man is standing.
Out any day in paperback and available for your favorite e-reader. Translation by Jessica Cohen. Stay tuned — lots of great writers publishing this year.