A Stand-Up Comedy that went off the tracks. Review: A Horse Walks Into A Bar

The winner of Man Booker International Prize 2017. A compelling story of an artist, his performance, and an audience. What brings them together and what sets them apart? “A Horse Walks Into A Bar” becomes a contemporary portrait of where we are with the art and what is the relationship between spectators and artists nowadays.



T he novel centers on Dovaleh Goldstein, an artist performing stand-up comedy in a small bar in Netanya in Israel. If you’re expecting a comedy full of humor and jokes, an easy read you might be profoundly disappointed. Although Grossman’s story central axis is an open-mic show it’s rather one of those that goes its own and at the beginning unpredictable way. Certainly, off the tracks.

The narration of the novel is kind of an adventure on its own. We learn about the narrative voice, and its relationship with Dovelah as the events of his story unfold. The storyteller is the protagonist’s friend from the childhood: judge Avishai Lavar who was invited to the show by Dovelah. His request was rather awkward or incomprehensible one.

‘I want you to see me,’ he said on the phone that night after I’d apologized profusely for my attack. ‘You just have to sit there for an hour and a half, two hours tops, depends how the evening goes….’

Dovelah wants his old friend just to see him on the stage as a human, an artist. This invitation Grossman also extends to the readers to see the artist, to become an audience. Involuntarily we do accept it. His style, writing and the construction of the novel absorb and transfer the reader into the bar in Netanya. Hence, with bewilderment we find ourselves sitting there by the judge at the table, watching Dovaleh’s performance thus becoming both the audience and the part of the show itself. The narrative that Grossman offers works on two levels: one as witnessing the course of action in the bar, and second as judge’s recalling of the past events that brought them together as kids.

This compelling story of Dovaleh’s performance on a quite simple, as it could seem at first appearance, example of stand-up comedy portrays what art is and what it can be; what roles it is dedicated to. What does it mean to be an artist in contemporary times? Although the conclusions might not be obvious, it is quite clear dialogue on how we perceive an artist – rather through his work than his life as a human being. This dissonance between Dovaleh history and his performance becomes evident as the events unfold in the novel and what was supposed to be a funny stand-up goes completely off the tracks. The spectators are at first bewildered with course of action but then becoming more and more unsympathetic.

‘How about a joke or two, man?’ someone calls out, and another man grunts: ‘We came to hear jokes!’ A woman shouts back at them: ‘Can’t you see he’s the joke today?’ She rakes in a whole avalanche of laughs.

Still an artist and his art need their audience to be alive and to be defined. Grossman through the narrative voice of the judge asks the question of the nature and character of the relationship between the author and his audience. How deep this relationship can be and how it’s actually orchestrated by the artist (if he is the one who does that).

How did he do that? I wonder [the judge]. 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 his hostages?

While reading the story, we all become his hostages, his audience involuntarily. Yet it is a question of what it is to be a part of the performance and be a spectator? Grossman shows how nowadays audience is more and more longing for an easy art, as a form of escapism of their everyday life thus being reluctant to witness emotionally deep and meaningful forms of artistic performances.

On the other hand, the novel renders the relationship between one’s suffering and one’s form of artistic expression. How much Dovaleh’s childhood, personal experiences have influenced and shaped him as an artist.

As a result of the narrative and the transcending type of the novel to go deeper into details of the story would spoil it for the reader.

“A Horse Walkes Into a Bar” is unusual but at the same time an incredible story of a man, an artist in his quest for approval as a human being as a person standing behind his performances. Therefore, Dovaleh invites his old friend to see him; really see HIM as an individual who has the own story and a life he had lived. Once you accept the invitation to this small bar you won’t leave it till the show ends.

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