So Barb got me A Horse Walks Into a Bar for Christmas. It was on my wish list. I had seen it on a lot of the year-end lists and it looked like something I would enjoy.
And I did. It is a supreme literary achievement and deserves all of the accolades it has received. David Grossman, the author, created a piece of writing that is at the top of the craft.
The frame of the book is deceptively simple. The entire story is told through one man’s stand up routine in a club in Israel. Grossman takes that frame and uses it to gradually reveal the story of the stand up comic, who is clearly tormented. Through it all, the reader has the sense it is bad. Is driven to keep watching. Sees it get worse and worse and yet continues.
I can’t find the quote, but somewhere the narrator says something like “but what is literature but an excuse for a man to look into another man’s tortured soul?”
The audience at the club gets involved as part of the story. As the story moves forward, it turns out that people who have been sitting there in the audience are actually part of the story, as if a spotlight shines on them suddenly in the dark.
Grossman’s writing has been praised in reviews for being elegant and spare. It’s hard to describe how true this is. Every word is perfect. Every word is necessary.
This is one of those stories that has everything. Abuse. Family dysfunction. Mental illness. Death. Regret. Told in a florid and overbearing style, it would collapse of its own weight into The Prince of Tides. It would be emotionally unmanageable.
But Grossman gives us nothing but the story and lets us supply the feelings.
I don’t like to give plot summaries, but if you read the book, there’s a scene where the comic describes being put into a truck with a total stranger and the scene goes on and on and you can feel yourself in that car, you can see what it looks like out the dusty window. The scene, which seems incidental, turns into the book’s critical passage and it is a torture to read.
Which brings up a key point. This book is framed in a stand-up comedy routine. Any reader should understand that the book is almost never funny. There are a couple corny jokes–like ones your uncle would tell every year at the family BBQ after cracking open his sixth can of Stroh’s–and you might chuckle at those, or groan.
But this book is not funny. In fact, it is a tough read. It is dark and it delves into the most pain and regrets that people are capable of carrying, exponentially multiplied by years of stewing.
And I guess that’s my ultimate verdict. This is an expertly crafted piece of fiction. I like my art dark, and it certainly is. The only thing that keeps this book from reaching my very top shelf is just the fact that…for my taste…it is dark and humorless, unlike say Catch-22.
That’s ultimately quibbling. This is a great book.