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Book Review: A Horse Walks Into A Bar

A Horse Walks Into A Bar Cover

I want to try something new. I’m thinking of calling it Amrita’s ‘Wednesday Words of Wisdom’. These wouldn’t be rehashing some trite motivational quotes. No, Messieurs et Mesdames et Mesdemoiselles. These will be the hard-earned truth, laid brutally on your casual reading plate. Today’s words are: Never ask anybody what they think of you.

Just don’t. Not your friends, family, significant others, the universe or Quora. Trust me (though I may not be trustworthy), you don’t want to know. I used to ask this question all the time. I believed that’s where closeness lay. That space you want to occupy with a person where you feel you have surrendered your existence completely to them, usually initiated by some dose of flattery from you. When such a question is not about validating your existence, the relationship or even a shaping of your identity. In fact, I suggest you never ask yourself, what you think about yourself. Blissful ignorance of your personality is the only way to happiness, my friend.

David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into A Bar (Man Booker International Prize winner, 2017) is a 200-page book about a roughly two-hour stand-up comedy show in Netanya, Israel. That sounds good already, for who wouldn’t love to read a book about a stand-up show happening in real-time? And it is a stand-up show, much more than some people give it credit for. It is certainly where comedy is headed, and is richly in the stand-up comedy ilk, if I may say so myself. It starts with the simple premise of an old school friend (the comedian) calling up another school friend (the retired judge) inviting him to a show when they are both in their late fifties, asking him to answer one question at the end of it – what does he think of him?

Stand-up comedians spend most of their time going over that question. At least, the good ones do. The others rely on cheap laughs by making cheap jokes about how expensive it can get to keep a wife. Avishai Lazar (the comedian) provides the audience periodically with that too, just when they start to lose interest in him talking about himself. Some of the jokes are better than the casual sexism of say, Jimmy Carr, but in a book littered with solid jokes, you never laugh. As Avishai disintegrates, telling the story of his life from his childhood, especially focusing on his refreshingly complex (instead of the standard, storytelling complex) relationship with his father, you never cry. Never has a book given you all you expected, witnessed you as you received it, and then left you unsure as to how you should respond. It is not your usual absurd fare, where you don’t know what you want to make of it all. It is your job to witness a comedy show, in which the comedian chooses this evening, where he is also witnessed by his friend, as his evening to bare-it-all, albeit as teasingly as possible.

Does that sound appetizing? Does that make your literary buds water, WordPress readers? Avishai would have asked you that question, and his pointedness about things (no matter that it takes him way too long to get to them) is what makes him worth the read. The judge, Dovaleh Greenstein, serves as narrator and the other significant speaking character, but his input, especially his insipid love life, serves little purpose for the revelation of Avishai. In fact, his handling of that promising but lethal question – what did he make of Avishai after all? – is also similarly lacklustre. Avishai spent much of his life walking on his hands (physical comedy is not just an unimaginative accessory for him as it is for other stand-up comedians. He’s been at it longer.), and that upside-down look at the world is what makes this novel totally off-centre.


Read my last short story/blog post called ‘Strange Attraction’:



Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

3 thoughts on “Book Review: A Horse Walks Into A Bar

  1. Have you seen Midnight in Paris?
    I quite liked it – there’s a scene where Owen Wilson’s character asks (I think it was) Ernest Hemingway to read his work. He advised Owen, never ask someone what they think of your work.
    In his case, if the fellow author thought it was bad, it would be deflating. Or worse, if the fellow author thought it was good, they’d become angry & jealous, so I guess a lose-lose!

    1. I did see Midnight in Paris, and that does seem to be the sort of thing Hemingway would say! The scene I remember the most is the one with Salvador Dali. That ‘rhinoceros’ bit was hilarious!

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