David Grossman's virtuoso new novel takes the form of a stand-up comedian's set. As he disintegrates on stage the question remains; why has Dovaleh G invited a former childhood friend to watch this performance?
He called me about two weeks ago. At eleven-thirty at night. I had just come back from walking the dog. He introduced himself with a certain tense and celebratory anticipation in his voice, which I did not respond to. Confused, he asked if it was me, and whether his name didn’t sound familiar. I said it didn’t . I waited. I loathe people who quiz me like that. The name rang a bell, but it was faint. He wasn’t someone I’d met through work, of that I was certain: the aversion I felt was a different kind. This was someone from a more inner circle, I thought. With a greater potential for harm.
‘Ouch,’ he quipped, ‘I was sure you’d remember …’ He chuckled heavily, and his voice was slightly hoarse. For a moment I thought he was drunk. ‘Don’t worry’, he said, ‘I’ll keep this short and sweet.’ And here he giggled: ’That’s me: short and sweet. Barely five-foot-two on a good day.’
‘Listen, What do you want?’
There was a stunned silence, then he asked again if it was me. ‘I have a request for you,’ he said, abruptly focused and businesslike: ‘Hear me out and decide, and no big deal if you say no. No hard feelings. It’s not something that’ll take up a lot of your time, just one evening. And I’m paying, obviously, however much you say, I won’t haggle with you.’
I was sitting in the kitchen, still holding the dog’s lead. She stood there weak and sniffling, looking up at me with her human eyes as if surprised that I was still on the phone.
I felt oddly exhausted. I had a sense that there was a second, muted conversation going on between me and this man, which I was too slow to pick up. He must have been waiting for an answer, but I didn’t know what he was asking. Or maybe he’d made his request and I hadn’t heard. I remember looking at my shoes. Something about them, the way they pointed at each other, brought a lump to my throat.
He slowly walks towards a worn, overstuffed red armchair on the right-hand side of the stage. Perhaps it too – like the big copper urn – is left over from an old play. He collapses into it with a sigh, sinks further and further down until it threatens to swallow him up.
People stare at their drinks ,swirl their glasses of wine and peck distractedly at their little bowls of nuts and pretzels.
Then muffled giggles. He looks like a little boy in a giant piece of furniture. I noticed that some people are trying not to laugh out loud, avoiding his eyes, as though afraid to get mixed up in some convoluted calculus he is conducting with himself, Perhaps they feel, as I do, that in some way they already are embroiled in the calculus and in the man himself more than they intended to be. He slowly lifts his feet, displaying the high, almost feminine heels of his boots. The giggles grow louder, until laughter washes over the entire club.
He kicks his feet and flutters his arms as if drowning, yells and sputters, and finally uproots himself from the depths of the armchair, leaps up and stands a few steps away from it, panting and staring at it fearfully. The audience laughs with relief – good old slapstick – and he gives them a threatening glare, but they laugh even harder. He finally deigns to smile, soaking up the laughs. That unexpected tenderness softens his face again, and the audience responds. The comic, the entertainer, the jester, savours the reflection of his smile in his viewers’ faces; for a moment one can almost imagine he believes what he sees.
But then once again, as though incapable of tolerating the affection for more than a second, he stretches his mouth into a thin disgusted line. I’ve seen that grimace before: a little rodent gnawing on himself.
‘I’m really sorry for bursting into your life like this,’ he said in that late-night phone call, ‘but I guess I was hoping that thanks to some, you know, devotion of youth …’ he sniggers again, ‘after all, you could say we started out together, but you know, you went your own way, and you did a great job, big respect …’ Here he paused, waiting for me to remember, to finally wake up. He could not have imagined how stubbornly I was holding onto my comatose state, or how violent I could be towards anyone who tried to sever me from it. ‘It’ll take me a minute to explain, tops. So worst-case scenario, you’ve given me a minute of your life. Cool?’
He sounded like a man of my age but he used a younger generation’s slang. Nothing good was going to come of this. I closed my eyes and tried to remember. Devotion of youth … Which youth was he referring to? My childhood in Gedera? The years when we moved around because of my father’s business, from Paris to New York to Rio de Janeiro to Mexico City? Or perhaps when we returned to Israel and I went to high school in Jerusalem? I tried to think fast, to find my escape route. His voice towed a sense of distress, shadows of the mind.
‘Look,’ he burst out, ‘is this an act, or are you such a big-shot that you won’t even … How can you not remember ?!’
No one had spoken to me like that for a long time. It was a breath of fresh air, purifying the disgust I felt towards the hollow deference that usually surrounded me, even three years after retiring.
‘How can you not remember something like that?’ he kept fuming. ‘We took a class together for a whole year with that Kalchinski guy in Bayit Va’Gan, and then we used to walk to the bus together.’
It slowly started to come back. I remembered the little apartment, dark even at midday, and then I remembered the gloomy teacher, tall and thin and hunched, who looked like he was holding up the ceiling with his back. There were five or six of us boys, all useless at maths, who came from a few different schools to take private lessons with him.
He kept up a torrent of speech, reminding me of long-forgotten things. He sounded hurt. I listened and yet I didn’t. I lacked the strength for these emotional upheavals. I looked around the kitchen seeing things I had to mend, or paint, or oil, or caulk. ‘House arrest,’ as Tamara used to call the endless list of chores.
‘You blocked me out,’ he finally said, incredulous.
‘I’m sorry,’ I murmured, and only when I heard myself say it did I realize I had anything to be sorry for. The warmth of my voice was revealing, and from that warmth there emerged a fair-skinned, freckled boy with splotches on his cheeks. A short, skinny boy with glasses and prominent lips that were defiant and restless. A boy who talked quickly and was always slightly hoarse. And I remembered instantly that despite his fair skin and pale pink freckles, his thick curly hair was jet-black, a contrast of colours that had made a great impression on me.
‘I remember you!’ I exclaimed. ‘Of course, we used to walk together … I can’t believe I could have …’
‘Thank God,’ he sighed, ‘I was starting to think I’d made you up.’
I’m really fed up with the new anti-Semitism, you know? Seriously, I was finally getting used to the old kind
‘And gooood eeeevening to the stunning beauties of Netanya!’ he bellows as he resumes his dance across the stage, clicking his heels. ‘I know you, girls! I know you all too well. I know you from the inside… What was that, table thirteen? You have some nerve, you know!’ His face darkens and for a moment he seems genuinely hurt: ‘Hitting a shy, introverted guy like me with such an invasive question. Of course I’ve had Netanya women!’ He gives a full, round grin. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers, times were hard, we had to make do…’ The audience, men and women, slap their hands on the tables, booing, whistling, laughing. He crouches on one knee opposite a table of three bronzed, giggling old ladies with blue-tinted hair-dos made up mostly of air. ‘Well hello, table eight! What are you beauties celebrating tonight? Is one of you becoming a widow at this very second? Is there a terminal man taking his final breath in the geriatric ward as we speak? “Go on, buddy, keep going,” he cheers on the imaginary husband. “One more push and you’re free!” The women laugh and pat the air with affectionate scolding. He dances around on the stage and almost falls off the edge, and the audience laughs louder. “Three men!” he yells, holding up three fingers. “An Italian, a Frenchman and a Jew, sit in a bar talking about how they pleasure their women. The Frenchman says: “Me, I slather my mademoiselle from head to toe with butter from Normandy, and after she comes she screams for five minutes.” The Italian says: “Me, when I bang my signora, first of all I spread her whole body from top to bottom with olive oil that I buy in this one village in Sicily, and she keeps screaming for ten minutes after she comes.” The Jewish guy’s mute. Nothing. The Frenchman and the Italian look at him: “What about you?” “Me?” says the Jew. “I slather my Golda with schmaltz and after she comes she creams for an hour.” “An hour?” The Frenchman and the Italian can’t believe their ears: “What exactly do you do to her?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “I wipe my hand on the curtains.”’
Suddenly ravenous, I order a focaccia and grilled aubergine with tahini.
‘Where was I?’ he says joyfully, following my exchange with waitress out of the corner of his eye; he seems happy that I ordered. ‘The schmaltz, the Jew, the wife… We really are a special people, aren’t we, my friends? You just can’t compare any other nation to us Jews. We’re the chosen people! God had other options but he picked us!’ The crowd applauds. ‘Which reminds me – and this is kind of a huge thing – that’s what I said – I’m really fed up with the new anti-Semitism, you know? Seriously, I was finally getting used to the old kind, you could even say I was becoming ever so slightly fond of it, you know, with those charming fairytales about the Elders of Zion, those bearded old hook-nosed trolls sitting around together, munching on tapas of leprosy with cilantro and plague, exchanging recipes for quinoa braised in well-poison, slaughtering the occasional Christian child for Passover – “Hey, guys, have you noticed the kids are tasting a little astringent this year?” Anyway, we’ve learned how to live with all that, we got used to it, it’s like part of our heritage. But these guys turn up with their new anti-Semitism and … I don’t know … It doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve gotta say I even feel a little aversion towards it.’ He presses his fingers together and shrugs his shoulders with genuine awkwardness. ‘I don’t know how to say this without offending the new anti-Semites, God forbid, but for fuck’s sake, people, don’t you think your attitude is just a little bit grating? ‘Cause sometimes I get the impression that if, let’s say, an Israeli scientist came up with a cure for cancer, right? A medicine that would finish off that cancer once and for all? Well then I guarantee you the next day people all over the world start speaking out and there’d be protests and demonstrations and UN votes and editorials in all the European papers, and they’d all be saying, “Now wait a minute, why must we harm cancer? And if we must, do we really need to completely annihilate it right off the bat? Can’t we try and reach a compromise first? Why go in with force straight away? Why not put ourselves in its shoes and try to understand how cancer itself experiences the disease from its own perspective? And let’s not forget that cancer does have some positives. Fact is, a lot patients will tell you that coping with cancer made them better people. And you have to remember that cancer research led to the development of medications for other diseases – are we just going to put an end to all that, in such a destructive manner? Has history taught us nothing? Have we forgotten the darker eras? And besides”’ – he adopts a contemplative expression – ‘”is there really anything about man that makes him superior to cancer and therefore entitled to destroy it?”’
The audience applauds sparsely. He charges ahead.
‘And gooood eeeeevening to all the men! It’s okay that you came too. If you sit quietly we’ll let you stay on as observers, but if you don’t behave yourselves we’ll send you next-door for chemical castration – sound good? So ladies, allow me to finally introduce myself properly, enough with the wild guesses, I know you’re dying to learn the identity of this mysterious man of romance. Dovaleh G is the name, it’s the handle, it’s the most successful brand in the entire enlightened world south of the Nile, and it’s easy to remember: Dovaleh, long for Dov, which is just like ‘dove’ except less peaceful, and G, like the spot, the apple of my dick. And ladies, I am all yours! I am prey for your wildest fantasies from now until midnight. “Why only midnight?” I hear you asking sadly. Because at midnight I go home and only one of you beauties will be lucky enough to accompany me and become one with my velvety body for a night of intimacy both vertical and horizontal, but mostly viral, and of course subject to whatever is made possible by the little blue pill of happiness, which gives me a few hours, or borrows back the prostate cancer stole – open parentheses: such an idiot, that cancer, if you ask me. Seriously, think about it, I have such gorgeous body parts. People come all the way from Ashkelon to look at this work of art. Like my perfectly round heel, for example’ – he turns his back to the audience and waves his boot charmingly – ‘or my sculpted thighs, or my silky chest, or my flowing hair. But that degenerate cancer would rather wallow in my prostates! Gets a kick out of playing with my pee-pee, I guess. I was really disappointed in him, close parentheses – But until midnight, my sisters, we will raise the roof with jokes and impersonations, with a medley of my shows from the past twenty years, as unannounced in the advertisements, ‘cause it’s not like anyone was going to spend a shekel to promote this gig except with an ad the size of a postage stamp in the Netanya free weekly. Fuckers didn’t even stick a poster on a tree trunk. Saving your pennies, eh, Yoav? God bless you, you’re a good man. Picasso the lost Rottweiler got more screen time than I did on the telegraph poles around here. I checked, I went past every single pole in the industrial zone. Respect, Picasso, you kicked ass, and I wouldn’t be in a hurry to come home if I were you. Take it from me, the best way to be appreciated somewhere is not to be there, you get me? Wasn’t that the idea behind God’s whole Holocaust initiative? Isn’t that really what’s behind the whole concept of death?
The audience is swept along with him.
‘Really, you tell me, Netanya – don’t you think it’s insane what goes through people’s minds when they put up notices about their lost pets? “Lost: golden hamster with a limp in one leg, suffers from cataracts, gluten sensitivity, and almond-milk allergy”. Helloooo! What is your problem? I’ll tell you right now where he is without even looking: your hamster’s at the nursing home!”
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WINNER OF THE INTERNATIONAL MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017
The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.
A Horse Walks into a Bar is a shocking and breathtaking read. Betrayals between lovers, the treachery of friends, guilt demanding redress. Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dovaleh G provokes both revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance.