A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman

September 22, 2017

The noted Israeli author's latest book is set in a 1990s second-string comedy club.

GreenbergOnTheArts

The noted Israeli author David Grossman’s latest book is set in a 1990s second-string comedy club. The audience is a cross-section of the country’s society: off-duty soldiers, local kids and kibbutzniks out for a good time, young and old couples, a lonely single or two. The story begins, epic fashion, in medias res. Dov Greenstein, AKA Dovaleh G, bounds onto the stage after a boisterous greeting from the wings: “Good evening to the majestic city of Ceasariyaaaaaah!!!” Reminded that he’s in Netanya, he groans, “Looks like my agent f.....d me again!!” Let the shtick commence!

He’s small, Dachau skeletal, in ceaseless balletic/mimetic/manic motion, sporting a ragged T-shirt, clown-like suspenders, and garish cowboy boots. His non-stop rat-a-tat chatter comprises a dizzy amalgam of jokes-a few hilarious, most worn-out; flagrantly transgressive insults to listeners and himself. He sniggers at Holocaust horrors, praising Dr. Mengele’s diagnostic skills; deriding Israel’s values, politics, and people, his dead parents included.

Followers in the thin crowd savor his scorched earth mockery; but others find him off-putting, even appalling-which is just fine by him. It’s likely he was once reasonably good at his raunchy (ie, “scabrous” trade, your choice). But he’s been plying it for 15 soul-draining years. His life offstage has become a marginalized shambles: multiple divorces, alienated children, nights passed-and passed out-in shabby motels, etc.

Grossman’s narrator is Avishai Lazar, formerly a respected Superior Court Judge, whose psychological condition is as ruinous as Dovaleh’s. Famous for brilliant rulings and an intense passion for justice, he also grew increasingly unpopular because of his withering criticism and icy remoteness on and off the bench. Both precipitated his retirement.

Lazar’s wife was well acquainted with his ornery schizoid disposition, but treasured him nonetheless. She died suddenly of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. He now lives alone, austerely: no children; few friends. His chief companions are an old dog and inconsolable grief.

It seems inexplicable that someone like Lazar would be attending a grotty stand-up show. But he has an unlikely past connection with Dovaleh: he comes from an urban, prosperous European Jewish background. Because of his father’s business, he was mostly raised in cities outside the Nazi sphere of influence, before the family’s settlement in Tel Aviv. He escaped persecution, but his frequent moves around the world, conflated with his obsessive/schizoid personality, have always made him feel the perennial outsider. Dovaleh has experienced the same sense of alienation, for vastly different reasons.

The two met at a private math tutor’s class and quickly formed the preadolescent “chum” friendship described by Harry Stack Sullivan-an uneroticized, immensely fulfilling intimacy. Dovaleh was drawn to Lazar’s intelligence and stability; Lazar to Dovaleh’s hectic wit and wildness.

Neither ever visited the other’s home. Lazar never knew that Dovaleh’s family was poor and exuberantly dysfunctional: his nearly mute mother was suicidal and depressed from Holocaust trauma; his father, a jack-of-all-trades petty tyrant, erratically loved and brutalized his son. His peers deemed him a weirdo nerd; he learned to survive the scorn and abuse heaped upon him by playing the clown. He aped and often exceeded their humiliation in aid of forestalling it-a familiar masochistic maneuver.

Lazar and Dovaleh’s relationship ended when their tutoring ended. They were thrown together several years later at a summer youth camp. Because of occurrences there that I’ll not divulge, they’ve been estranged for decades. Lazar was duly astonished when Dovaleh phoned him out of the blue, begging him to come watch his act. At first, he gave no reason; then obscurely inferred he hoped for some sort of “judgment.” Despite serious misgivings, Lazar accepted.

What follows bears many signatures of classic Greek tragedy (eg, Oedipus Rex) vis-a-vis plot, performance, and character. According to Aristotle, tragic action should be starkly undiluted by subplots, with unity of time and place. It should last a few hours, confined to one setting. Past or present events (notably violent ones) are to be described; they never appear on stage.

In this vein, A Horse Walks Into A Bar’s only setting is the club; during the real time of Dovaleh’s act, and a few moments later. The plot centers around the protagonists’ histories, individual and conjoined, alternately related by Dovaleh onstage to his listeners, and Lazar as he watches him, to the reader.

The classic Aristotelian hero was a man of high degree, brought down by the tragic flaw of hubris. Witnessing his fall, the viewer experienced pity, awe-and healing catharsis. The now humbled hero acknowledged his faults; achieved a measure of poignant redemption by accepting his impotence before the inscrutable purposes of fate and the Gods.

Speaking about Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller intimated that an ordinary man can be cast down, endure the terrible suffering of the noble hero’s as a result of a quotidian version of hubris. Lazar is already cognizant of his past arrogance and the flaws in his unbending nature, which caused his fall. But his isolation from the world because of guilt and grief continues-indeed, it has escalated.

For his part, Dovaleh is alexithymic; he possesses little if any connection to an inner life. His fall has been slowly gathering momentum as he arrogantly acts out his pain and anger before the listeners he scorns-but whose approval he also desperately craves.

After 15 years, his defenses-and performing skills-are nearly played out. It’s unclear to Dovaleh, and at first to the reader, whether he’s summoned Lazar to be the guilty witness of his final dissolution, or to find a measure of authenticity and meaning by somehow recuperating the therapeutic intimacy of their preadolescence.

Another crucial component of classic Greek tragedy is an anonymous chorus. It offers the despairing hero compassion and spiritual guidance; it also limns the inherent pathos of the human condition at large.

If Dovaleh’s audience is his chorus, it’s also his curse. The laughs he provokes are gradually replaced by a rising tide of invective. Instead of piquant fragments of his early family life-these probably have been a staple of his act-he goes spectacularly off message; reveals the horrid toxicity of his family at traumatizing length.

The ever-looming disaster for a stand-up comic is “losing” your audience- even literally. (Hence, the well-known complaint “I’m dying up here!!!”) Dovaleh’s desolating history ceases to amuse his listeners-and begins to provoke their wrath. “We come here to laugh,” someone shouts, “and he gives us Yom Kippur!!”

I’ll say no more about the novel’s riveting conclusion than that Lazar assumes the Attic chorus’s solicitous compassion after the audience is gone, which may have been Dovaleh’s hope from the first. Grossman rings down the curtain upon a tentative mutual redemption of their separate sorrow.

Dovaleh’s act does have Oedipal overtones: ambivalent anger and competition with his sadistic father for his mother’s love; and his tender regard for her. (In his youth, he often alleviated her despair with zany “shows” cribbed from pop culture entertainments.)

But I’ve always warned about the danger-and arrogance-of imagining that subtle art can be explained away simplistically by psychoanalytic concepts alone. Successful applied analysis demands humility and requisite technical as well as aesthetic knowledge.

The house of comedy has many mansions. By no means are all comics, stand-up or otherwise, ridden with unconscious rage and depression, the standard diagnostic conceptualization. Treating comic performers and writers over the years has lead me to wonder if this singular talent-as seems the case with other arts-may be inherited, or, to some extent, derive from identification with significant family member(s)-the brothers Marx leap to mind. As the old Bahamian folk-hymn goes, we will understand it better by and by.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"63287","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_6058133917213","media_crop_h":"100","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"8078","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"113","media_crop_scale_w":"125","media_crop_w":"111","media_crop_x":"14","media_crop_y":"12","style":"font-size: 13.008px; float: right; margin: 1px;","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]From the beginning, Freud’s clinical investigations were augmented by the new discipline he called “applied analysis” of the arts. My writing in this field has chiefly focused on cinema, but I’ve also addressed literature, painting, and music elsewhere. Psychiatric Times recently asked me to cast a wider critical net in these pages, via a column. My spectrum will be broad and, for the most part, current and reasonably available via the usual sources, the internet, and theatrical telecasting of drama, opera, art exhibitions, and so forth. Reader suggestions are always welcome.

Disclosures:

Dr. Greenberg practices psychiatry in Manhattan, New York. He continues to publish frequently on film, media, and popular culture. For many years, his cinema column appeared in Psychiatric Times. He has appeared frequently on national and international network and cable television programs including Good Morning America, Today, CBS Evening and Sunday News, PBS, CNN, Showtime, and BBC-TV. Please address communications to Dr. Greenberg at HRGSMES@AOL.COM.