A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman
A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman is the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize International. In about 200 pages, without pause, it captures the stand-up 'comedy' of a distasteful, repugnant late-middle-aged man through the eyes of a retired man who knew him when they were both young teenage boys, and whose attendance to the show was requested by the comedian following fifty years silence.
The comedian, Dovalah G, is described by the narrator, Avishai Lazar, as a 'skeleton key'. He toys with the audience and the Lazar himself feels he is being played with, but remains exposed even while conscious of this fact. It jumps time and place in two ways, even though the setting stays the basement bar: 1) As Dovalah weaves old memories into a long narrative he is telling between jokes and 2) As Lazar reflects on the comedian's story from his perspective, loosening his initial reserve to sympathy as he sees the comedian verbally and physically abuse himself on stage, expose his physical and mental wounds, wounds wound up in a shared history the narrator neglected (as he has also neglected accepting the passing of his wife, which comes in and out of his thoughts as well).
That felt like a mouthful. This book is a mouthful, though. Dressed in a simple veil - one comedian, one narrator, one night, two hours - it is a complicated parable of the loss of a nation. It is a work of art.
It grips you a little like the carnival season of American Horror Story gripped you. The characters are described as grotesque and their immediate ugliness makes you want to look away, but you can't. But then each character expands beyond their immediate physical features and you realize that, while they are dark, they are also light. Aside from the two central characters, there is a woman in the room - dwarfed, with red, smeared lips and a beehive hairdo - who remembers the comedian when he was a young boy. He walked up to her on his hands (yes, when young, he would walk on his hands instead of his feet to make his mother laugh) and told her to flip her sadness on its head as he did. You come to learn, through the spoken narrative of the comedian and the thoughts of the narrator, that this disturbing man on stage was once a small boy, beaten by his father and bullied at school, who found himself without the friend he thought he had at Gadna camp, an Israeli military training for youth and the last place he was with two living parents.
While I did not study the work of Grossman's competitors, I am confident this book earned its prize. And just like the few audience members that stayed on as Dovalah stepped further away from bad jokes and closer to truth about today's malfunctioning imaginary, I find myself loitering in the world created by his writing, wishing for one more performance from this heartbreaking comedian.