Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

"A horse walks into a bar" by David Grossman (Jonathan Cape, 2016)

In the third-person a stand-up, Dovaleh, is doing his act in Israel. We're given it nearly verbatim. He's on the edge of losing his audience - "The audience laughs with relief" (p.18) after he defuses a tense situation.

Then as the narrative sags the novel becomes a first-person narrative of someone in the audience, a retired judge who he'd invited out of the blue a fortnight before. They were friends as schoolboys. The comedian had asked him to attend - "I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterwards tell me" (p.28). At times this judge's backstory dominates the narrative. The audience grow restless because the comedian tells him life-story rather than jokes, though he has jokes ready when he needs them. At one point the judge (a widower) helps quell the crowd, though people begin to trickle away. Dovaleh tells a long story about being at Army cadet camp when he was 14. He was told to collect his stuff because he was going to be taken home for a funeral. He wasn't told who had died. The driver told him a joke or two. There's a mass exodus three-quarters of the way through the book. A few people want to hear the end of the story. The judge wonders how many of the survivors were invited like him. Finally it's just the judge (who'd been at the same camp) and the comedian.

It's a translation, but you'ld never have guessed.

The patience of the audience isn't so realistic. I don't think that matters. When the bulk of the audience leave I can imagine some readers leaving too - the anecdote about the long drive home drags.

Joseph O'Connor's "The Wexford Girl" has an obsessive joker, and I've read other short stories about sad stand-up acts. Novel-length attempts are rarer.

Other reviews

  • Valerie O’Riordan
  • Ian Sansom
  • Rebecca Abrams (It is a work of sombre brilliance and disquieting rage, an unsparing exploration of the seductive spell of escapism and “the corruption that is in cynicism”)
  • Eileen Battersby
  • Michael Schaub ( Grossman takes a lot of risks with A Horse Walks into a Bar, and every one of them pays off spectacularly well ... while A Horse Walks into a Bar is, in parts, stunningly sad, it's not another "tears of a clown" sob story)
  • Gary Shteyngart

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