‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ by David Grossman (Review – MBIP 2017, Number 10)

From Germany to Israel, from the epic to the intimate – the next stage of our Man Booker International Prize longlist journey is certainly very different to the last one.  However, there are some similarities.  For one thing, this one is also a story of the night, with the central character baring their soul (and more besides) for money.  What’s more, we find ourselves in a rather voyeuristic position once again, privy to personal details we’d prefer not to know…

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
– Jonathan Cape, translated by Jessica Cohen
What’s it all about?
Avishai Lazar, a retired judge, is contacted by a brief acquaintance from his teens, a boy he knew for a short period of time but had forgotten about until the surprise phone call.  Dovaleh Greenstein, or Dov G. as he’s also called, has become a stand-up comedian, and he’s contacting Lazar to ask him to watch his show:

“I want you to look at me,” he spurted.  “I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“What you saw.”
p.29 (Knopf, 2017)

Despite his misgivings, Lazar agrees to the request, and this is where the novel begins, with Dov’s ragged figure lurching onto a stage somewhere in the Israeli provinces.

What follows is a lengthy train-wreck of a performance, with Lazar tempted to leave soon after arriving.  Unfortunately, the cunning comedian senses his old friend’s mood and outs him to the audience, cutting off his escape route, leaving the ex-judge with no choice but to sit tight and watch Dov attempt to drag his audience along with him on a journey down memory lane.  As he intersperses his personal anecdotes with jokes, Lazar begins to feel for the poor man, and by the end of the night, he understands far more about Greenstein than he did before – as do those in the audience that manage to stay the distance.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a daring undertaking, the literary equivalent of a stand-up act.  For the most part, the novel consists of Dov’s spiel, with the spotlight firmly fixed on the stage, and the reader is there with Lazar at a table, cringing whenever the comedian fixes his gaze on us and sharing the embarrassment whenever someone decides to cut their losses and leave.  Occasionally, as the act touches on stories from Dov’s childhood, Lazar is reminded of those times, briefly zoning out to share his own memories with the reader.

While the focus is understandably on the stand-up, there’s also a lot here about Lazar himself.  We gradually learn that his retirement wasn’t entirely voluntary, with a connection here to a former partner, Tamara, who is no longer on the scene.  Initially, he takes this anger out on Dov, refusing his request out of hand, but he gradually comes to realise that his old friend is hurting more than he knew.

Nevertheless, we always come back to the show, and what a show it is.  Dov is undoubtedly an experienced campaigner, with the ability to grab people’s attention and turn hostility into grudging respect, even when the act is bombing:

The room is very quiet again; the air suddenly feels dense.  The thought that he might never get up passes, I think, through everyone’s mind.  As though each of us feels that somewhere out there, in some distant and capricious courtroom, a coin has been flipped that could come down either way.
How did he do that? I wonder.  How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul?  And into its hostages? (p.57)

In fact, Dov feeds on the electricity of the audience, energised by both the applause and the abuse.  Yet the comedian has an ulterior motive this time, and he uses every last ruse in his bag of tricks to keep as much of the audience as possible with him while he attempts to finish what he came here to do, to tell the story of who he is and how he came to be this way.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the way Grossman balances the tension and comedy, enabling Dov to keep going despite the obvious suffering shown (and that’s just the audience…).  We ride the wave up and down, from dirty jokes (which is what most people came for) to self-flagellating and even self-abuse, eventually realising that something very strange is happening:

This is no longer a show.  There is something here, and the audience is drawn to it, although anxiously, and apparently people are willing to give up on what they came here for, at least for a few minutes.  I try to overcome the paralysis that grips me again.  I try to wake myself up, to prepare for what is coming.  I have no doubt that it’s coming. (p.77)

This is stand-up as therapy, and surprisingly, we’re not always sure who the patient is.  It might be Dov, it could be Lazar, but there’s also an unexpected guest, sitting by herself at a table in the corner, whose presence is enough to throw even the experienced comedian off his game.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a short novel that lives and dies on the performance of its main character, but there’s more to it than simply the on-stage death of a clown.  Like Lazar, we sense that there’s a point to all this, a secret that will be revealed at some point, and that secret is…

…well, I won’t spoil the punchline 😉

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
After reading all that, you might be surprised to hear that I wasn’t a huge fan.  I can see that this is a well-constructed novel, and there’s certainly something appealing about watching Dov spiral further into darkness.  However, this just wasn’t my kind of book: it took far too long to warm up, and the much-hyped first pages left me cold.  In addition, there really needed to be more to the story than what we get.  There’s every chance that you’ll get to the end, having enjoyed it, and feel strangely flat as you realise that it was nothing more than a couple of hours of light entertainment…

Will it make the shortlist?
Yes, I think so (again, perhaps a surprising opinion).  The fact that it made the shortlist bodes well, and I suspect that it will bear up to a rereading better than some of the other contenders.  If you like your literature emotional, and enjoy extended character studies, this might be for you – and it may well be for the judges, too 🙂

With only a few stops left to make, it’s time to return to Europe, where we’ll be spending the rest of our literary holiday.  First up, we’ll be visiting Poland and reminiscing about childhood in the company of a young woman growing up in changing times.  After a few weeks spent mainly in big cities, we need a change ourselves – let’s take a trip to the countryside 🙂

14 thoughts on “‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ by David Grossman (Review – MBIP 2017, Number 10)

  1. Have to say this was up there with Fever Dream for me as one of the two standouts on the list. Seems to be the general view of the shadow-shadow-jury on Goodreads as well.

    Yes the reveal may not be that exciting, but I wasn’t really after a thriller. The literary effect of a novel told as a comedy act was exceptional. As a friend said – last year’s main Booker prize winner was a stand-up act masquerading as quality literature: this is quality literature masquerading as stand-up.


    1. Paul – I think we’re not quite as enamoured with it as you lot are (although several of our group may disagree!). Of the books I don’t particularly like, this is the one that I can see doing very well. I wouldn’t be heartbroken if it got shortlisted, but there’s no way it should get close to winning…


      1. Agreed it shouldn’t be close to winning, it should win 🙂

        Your points above about what often ends up on the shortlist are well made. 1. These are the judges that longlisted a book so if it has an idiosyncrasy that isn’t for us, that isn’t a reason not to expect to see it on the shortlist. 2. And the judges will have re-read all the books, so re-readability is also important.

        Daniel Hahn, the chair of judges, added another criteria in a lecture he gave – 3. the book should shape up well versus other of its type – i.e. best can be most easily judged by comparing to other similar books rather than other, very different, books on the longlist.

        Put all those together and we ought to be able to have an informed view of what will make the shortlist. In practice 1. 2. and 3. all seemed to be outweighed by rule 4. The judges are a small group of individuals with random tastes, just like any other group of individuals.

        Incidentally in my reading I added a 5. the novel should compare well to the author’s previous work. Of the 7 authors I had read before this would give : where those at the top are where I was most impressed vs. the author’s previous works I had read. The top 3 stood up well – the bottom 2 definitely didn’t.

        1. Yan Lianke: The Explosion Chronicles vs. The Four Books
        2. David Grossman: A Horse Walks into a Bar vs. To The Ends of the Land
        3. Ismail Kadare: The Traitor’s Niche vs. The Successor / Spring Flowers, Spring Frost / The Accident
        4. Amos Oz: Judas vs. A Tale of Love and Darkness
        5. Matthias Enard: Compass vs. Zone
        6. Alain Mabanckou: Black Moses vs. Broken Glass
        7. Jón Kalman Stefánsson: Fish Have No Feet vs. the Heaven and Hell trilogy

        With all that, the shadow-shadow jury’s shadowy verdict (with not all books read by all people) is:

        Winner: A Horse Walks Into a Bar

        Definite shortlist: Bricks & Mortar; Judas; The Traitor’s Niche

        Perm 2 more from 5 of: War & Turpentine; Fish Have No Feet; Compass; The Unseen; Fever Dream

        Nos: Swallowing Mercury; Explosion Chronicles; Black Moses; Mirror. Shoulder, Signal


        1. Paul – Erm, no, basically 😉

          I’m convinced that the Grossman will be shortlisted, and I have a sneaking suspicion that either the Nors or Greg will be too (just a hunch). Interesting that while you lot were all keen on this one, ‘The Unseen’ hasn’t had quite as much love – for me, a far better book… Also interesting that you preferred this year’s Yan Lianke to last year’s – we’re pretty unanimous in thinking the opposite!


          1. The Unseen generally went down well (certainly on my shortlist) – just people felt it wasn’t that distinctive.

            I really hope the Nors isn’t there – that was the one that seemed very out of place on the list. Nothing wrong with it, just very lightweight. Albeit that, per discussion above, is the very reason the same jury may shortlist it.

            With Four Books I just felt the concept wasn’t executed well. 90% of the text comes from two of them (Criminal Records and Heaven’s Child), and the distinction even between these two blurs as the tale becomes increasingly fantastical, and the idea that we are reading extracts from larger books (three are apparently 400 pages long yet the overall novel is only around 300 pages) is conveyed simply by page numbers on each extract but is otherwise unconvincing.


              1. Don’t shoot the messenger! It was in my top 6 and actually it was in the forum top 6, just clearly behind the top 4.

                One person deducted a mark due to Don Bartlett working on this rather than getting on with Volume 6 of Knausgaard!

                Liked by 1 person

  2. Compass
    A Horse Walks Into a Bar
    The Unseen
    Mirror. Shoulder, Signal
    Fever Dream

    Five from my personal shortlist – I’d have swapped M / S / Signal for The Traitors Niche or indeed any other book!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Looking like there may be a bigger difference between the shadow jury and the shadow-shadow jury than the official one!
    I think I said in my review that I admired rather than loved this book – but I did find that when I came to score it, it came out higher than I would have expected.


    1. Grant – I can kind of see it, but it’s simply not for me, and I would be *very* disappointed if this ended up winning 😦


      1. Don’t want to give the impressions the Goodreads gang all universally acclaimed this as the winner.

        Indeed of the 8 people, none had it as first choice, including me: two votes for Judas & Compass, one each for Fever Dream, Bricks & Mortar, Traitor’s Niche and Fish Have No Feet.

        But it was generally liked / top 3 by almost everyone who read it, whereas most of the others in that list above had their detractors as well as their supporters.


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