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So a Novelist Walks Up to a Microphone . . .

Marty Roth
May 24, 2017

by Marty Roth

Discussed in this essay: A Horse Walks into a Bar, by David Grossman, translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017, 208 pages.

“DON’T YOU THINK my jokes are funny?”

“No . . . . Your jokes are bad . . .”

“Bad, as in not funny . . . Or as in, like, they’re mean?”

“’. . . Both,’ she says finally . . .”

“But that’s what stand-up comedy is.”

A JEW walks into a comedy club, and with a lusty “Hellooooo Netanya,” launches into a two-hour routine of insults, jokes and elaborate self-laceration -– “one sustained performative howl,” as author Gary Shteyngart put it in The New York Times Book Review, or like “a little rodent gnawing on himself,” as the narrator says. That’s the long and the short of Israeli author David Grossman’s latest novel.

Dovaleh G, our comic, does not do standup like Jerry Seinfeld, but more like the obsessive routines of Lenny Bruce talking about his police busts and court cases. This particular version of the comedy art form even has a genre name, “confessional standup” (as practiced by Louis C. K. or Margaret Cho). Its promise is the absolution, through laughter, of both audience and comic -– through the liberating humiliation of the former as their secret shame is exposed by a sacrificial figure who, in exchange, physically and emotionally flays himself and lays himself bare to the delight of all. The comic, reports Grossman’s narrator, creates a “murky sense of partnership that prickles deep in our guts and stirs up a sticky, messy pleasure both sickening and alluring.”

Standup on paper –- that is, without the energy of the performance space –- should be hard to achieve. Don DeLillo couldn’t make it work in Underworld when he channeled Lenny Bruce to expose the Cuban Missile Crisis. Grossman’s foray into this fictional realm is not successful either -- but it is fascinating. Dovaleh’s standup is not very good, judging by his audience’s reactions. At a certain point in the act, as the audience withholds its laughter, he mouths silently, “Not funny? Really? That’s it. I’m not funny anymore? I’ve finally lost it?” -- and begins to slap and punch himself like a “human tempest.”

There are at least a couple of audience members with whom Dovaleh has a special relationship: Avishai Lazar, a childhood friend, now a retired judge, who has been coerced into attending the show for reasons that remain cloudy; and Azulai, a tiny woman with a speech impediment, who also knew Dov as a young boy.

THE LIFE on display is messy and full of pain. An abusive father, and a mother who barely survived her experiences in Holocaust Europe; constant bullying as a youth; multiple divorces; prostate cancer. The core event appears to have taken place at a camp for Israeli teenagers that gives the teens a taste of what their future military service will be like. There Dov had been the tormented object until he was sent back home to attend his first funeral -- although the officers avoided telling him which family member died, and he was too confused or terrified to ask them.

So far, so good, but what is at the heart of the confession for which we uneasily wait to hear? What is the novel’s secret? The comic’s punchline? Is it suffering and loss? Grossman lost a son in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and this loss was the subject of his two previous works, To the End of the Land and Falling Out of Time. But here it is the son, not the father, who laments. Dovaleh’s friend Avishai is the primary avatar of loss in the book, grieving the death of his wife, Tamara.

Is it art? Dovaleh Greenstein and David Grossman are alphabetically related and both have dealt with their pain by turning it into performance. Dov is also doubled in the novel by the truck driver who is taking him to the funeral and cracks one bad joke after another to keep him from grieving. Even Avishai plans to write up the evening from his scribbled notes on napkins.

Or is it, again and again and again, the deep and self-eternalizing echoes of the Holocaust transmitted by his mother? Dov, however, resembles Momik, the protagonist of Grossman’s early masterpiece See Under: LOVE, who gathers doddering Holocaust survivors together in a basement and lashes out at them: “Shut up already, enough already, we’re sick of your story, you can’t kill the Nazikaputt with a story.”

Or is it, as many suggest, an allegory about present-day Israel? That one leaves me gasping. Israel as a young man who has been subjected to constant abuse? In the light of the Occupation, that would indeed be a sick joke.

I have to say that I never got what I was waiting for, a secret that was sufficient to justify the waiting (even though the waiting itself was often engrossing).

Let’s turn it all around, though (Dovaleh, after all, walked on his hands for much of his childhood to avoid being beaten): Rather than praising this confession for the depth of its anguish, let us understand it as just another empty communication commodity in a postmodern world where everything (even the Holocaust) is regularly traded in the marketplace of public display. Standup is the perfect postmodern art form, a performance of pastiche that randomly recycles moments of deep significance, shifting rapidly from one subject position to another, jumbling the grotesque and the tragic.

Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the installation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For ten years he was part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine.