A HORSE WALKS INTO A BAR
By David Grossman
Translated by Jessica Cohen
194 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.
A broken man walks on stage and makes jokes for 194 pages. That’s the shortest summary I can think of for David Grossman’s magnificently comic and sucker-punch-tragic excursion into brilliance, his new novel, “A Horse Walks Into a Bar.” Jewish humor is celebrated, and, these days, more necessary than ever. It is humor from the edge of the grave. Humor with a gun stuck in your ribs. Humor that requires nothing more than a match and a can of gasoline. And, of course, the willingness to set yourself on fire. Grossman’s protagonist, the self-styled Dovaleh G, is ready for the flames. He addresses an audience hungry for jokes — though not of the political variety, they’ve had enough of that in Israel — in the basement club of the town of Netanya, which lies between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The first photo of Netanya on Wikipedia shows the intersection of two highways with some Minsk-looking apartment towers attached. As Dovaleh likes to say: “Nice city, Netanya.”
The audience for Dovaleh’s act of self-immolation is a cross-section of Israeli society: soldiers, bikers, gruff Likudniks, sensitive young women and two special guest stars from his childhood, a former judge with anger management issues and a dwarf village medium with a speech impediment. As Dovaleh unleashes the most heartfelt and terrifying stories of his life, the joke-hungry audience rebels. “You wanna clear your head,” one man cries before storming out, “and this guy gives us Yom Kippur.” Comic novelists may understand Dovaleh’s predicament all too well. Have I earned enough laughs to show you I’m this close to blowing my brains out, or do you want me to tell you the one about that horse who walks into a bar? Or, as another disgruntled audience member says: “Can you…