Novella a Day in May 2020 #28

A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman (2014, trans. Jessica Cohen 2016) 198 pages

A Horse Walks Into a Bar is a novel about a comedian, but the fact that it won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize (there’s an interesting interview with translator Jessica Cohen on the Asymptote blog) is an indication that it has serious things to say. Its takes place in Israel and so it also forms my last stop this novella month on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. 

Dovaleh Greenstein is a stand-up comic known as Dovaleh G, and the novel follows his set in a Netanya comedy club over two hours, from the point of view of his childhood friend Avishai Lazar, now a retired district court judge in his late 50s who barely remembers Dovaleh.

“From the minute he got on stage he’s been seeking my eyes. But I can’t look straight at him. I dislike the air in here. I dislike the air he breathes.”

Dovaleh G is not a pleasant man. He berates the audience, he insults their town, he has the style of stand-up that mixes old-fashioned jokes with barely concealed aggression.

“I swear to God, standing before you tonight is the first man in history to get post-partum depression. Five times! Actually four, ‘cause two of them were twins. Actually five, if you count the bout of depression after my birth.”

He’s offensive and at various points audience members walk out. They complain he is not giving them what they paid for – a night of laughs. Instead, Dovaleh recounts his childhood memories: living with his mother who was traumatised from the camps, and his father who beat him. He walked on his hands to escape neighbourhood bullies.

Onstage, he verges on being a bully himself. Someone else is in the audience who remembers him as a child: Azulai, a small woman and spirit medium, to whom he is absolutely brutal. Yet his most vehement aggression is reserved for himself:

“Somehow, on the phone, there was something attractive about his offer, and I can’t deny that he does have his moments on stage, too. When he hit himself, there was something there, I’m not sure what, some sort of alluring abyss that opened up. And the guy is no idiot. He never was”

Grossman captures brilliantly that tension that can exist in stand-up where the audience don’t feel entirely safe, and don’t exactly know where their laughter is coming from. He also exploits fully that a lot of comedy is born out of pain. Dovaleh G is not likable, but throughout the course of the novella he does become understandable, and it is possible to feel compassion for him.

The audience (and readers) become witnesses for Dovaleh G; to his life, his trauma and his anger. What humour there is, is very, very dark. There was a riff on Dr Mengele that actually made me wince – I’m not sure I’ve winced at a book before.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a devastating read but not a destructive one. At the end I felt there was some hope, which given Grossman is a highly political writer has wider significance than the life of Dovaleh G and Avishai Lazar. I’ve not discussed the politics of the novella because I felt I didn’t know enough about Israel and Palestine to do it justice, but if you know about this in more depth then I’m sure A Horse Walks Into a Bar will have an extra resonance for you.

“How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul?

“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” (Seamus Heaney)

This is a contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff – do join in!

I’ve decided to make debut novels featuring a crime the theme of the post (the first choice isn’t quite a crime novel, hence that rather cumbersome explanation). It was with regret that I decided the following quote – so thematically apt – was too long to pick as a title:

“There are three states of legality in Irish law. There is all this stuff here under “That’s grand”; then it moves into “Ah, now, don’t push it”; and finally to “Right! You’re taking the piss.” And that’s where the police sweep in.” (Dara O’Briain)

Firstly, The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney’s debut novel which won the Bailey’s Prize in 2016 (the 2017 longlist was announced yesterday). Set in Cork, it tells the story of Robbie O’Donvan’s death – an almost homeless drug addict who theoretically could disappear with few people noticing – and the fractures that radiate out across the city from this one act.

McInerney is interested in the members of society who are simultaneously vilified and ignored. So the people affected by Robbie’s death include a teenage drug dealer, his alcoholic father, their paedophile neighbour, Robbie’s prostitute girlfriend. If this sounds depressing, it really isn’t due to McInerney’s comic voice and eye for beauty where there should be none.

“The rain cleared off in the evening, Tony walked down to the off-licence and stood outside it like a child with tuppence to his name outside the toy shop. If he pressed his nose to the glass, he may well have been able to smell it. The heady warmth of the thought seeped through his hell and into his bones and lifted his onto his toes and rose off him like holy water off the devil’s shoulders.”

She doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situation, but presents it in a complex way, so Tony’s alcoholism is seen through his own eyes as self-medication for the pressures he is under, and we also shown the catastrophic impact this has on his son, Ryan. All the people in the novel are self-aware enough to know the damage they are doing to themselves and others but they are powerless to stop it:

“How could you be two people in five years? How could you undergo such a metamorphosis – whore to saint – and paint the slattern back over the scar tissue only a few short years later?”

McInerney manages to covey insight without ever sitting in judgement on her characters. This moment stood out for me as the tragedy of people who are in so much pain, yet unable to articulate to themselves or others:

“And for the beat before he wordlessly left her she grasped something of what he was trying to say, And that it might have been nice to have someone like him, someone who got it, someone who might have stood by her and bawled her out of it when she stepped out of line.”

The city of Cork is an additional, pervasive character in the novel, surrounding, influencing and directing all the other characters:

“Jimmy had watched the city long enough to know that it would right itself, sooner or later, and that the silence following Robbie O’Donovan’s death was just a long, caught breath”

“The city runs on macro, but what’s that, except the breathing, beating, swallowing, sweating agonies and ecstasies of a hundred thousand little lives?”

I haven’t mentioned much plot-wise regarding The Glorious Heresies, because to me this was the least interesting part of the novel (but still excellent).  How Robbie O’Donovan’s death is dealt with in practical terms is the bare bones of what McInerney is writing about. As a series of characters studies of people and their city, The Glorious Heresies is warm, affectionate, brutal, bleak and incisive.

Secondly, In the Woods by Tana French (2007), the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, focussing on detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the murder of 12 year old Katy Devlin. I’m not a great one for crime novels but I was persuaded by Lady Fancifull to give French a try. I’m glad I did, but first I had to make it through an appallingly overwritten prologue; I have no idea what French’s editors were thinking, letting her start with a passage which includes a description of a forest thus:

“It’s silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises”

Having waded through such pretentious nonsense, I was rewarded with an accomplished debut crime novel. Rob Ryan is asked to investigate the murder of a child in his home town just outside Dublin, his superiors unaware that when he was twelve, he was found in the same woods as the victim, bloodied and amnesiac, with his two best friends lost forever. If this sounds a bit clichéd, French has fun with it:

“And I suppose, if I’m being honest, it appealed to both my ego and to my sense of the picturesque, the idea of carrying this strange charged secret through the case unsuspected. I suppose it felt, at the time, like the kind of thing that enigmatic Central Casting maverick would have done.”

Maverick coppery 101

As Rob and his partner Cassie investigate Katy’s murder, they discover family secrets and political conspiracies, but did these lead to the death of a twelve year old girl, excited to be going to ballet school?

“All these private, parallel dimensions, underlying such an innocuous little estate; all these self-contained worlds layered onto the same space. I thought of the dark strata of archaeology underfoot; of the fox outside my window, calling out to a city that barely overlapped with mine.”

In the Woods was a good read and filled with believable characters, which bodes well for the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad novels as French focusses on a different person each time. Some quibbles: it was too long and (I feel like I say this all the time) could have done with a heavier-handed edit. The voice of Rob Ryan sometimes felt distinctly feminine but at least he wasn’t an alpha-male detective type. This aside, French’s talent is evident and I’m sure she’s gone from strength to strength in her subsequent novels.

To end, the cop with the least convincing Irish accent of all time, but the performance still won an Oscar, because it’s Lord High Commander Sir Sean Connery 😀