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.
This has some mixed reviews, and I can understand why, to an extent. It’s very unusual, very dark and is difficult to read at times. But it’s brilliant.
Stand-up comedian Dovaleh G is giving a performance in a small Israeli town. A childhood friend has been asked to attend – he doesn’t know why, and as the evening progresses, he feels more and more uncomfortable, as do the audience, who realise that this isn’t the show they were expecting.
Dovaleh is telling his own story, and it isn’t very funny at all. It’s heart-breaking, and he tells it unflinchingly. From the performance, we learn about Dovaleh, his life, his tragedies, and we learn about betrayals, about loss.
It’s an unusual structure, but it really works, allowing for Dovaleh’s character to come through so authentically – which is where it is sometimes hard to read. As a reader, it’s as if you’re there in the audience at times, witnessing Dovaleh falling apart. And you really feel for the child that he was, and the pain that he felt, and you understand how that has made him the man he is. It’s about more than one man though. Dovaleh’s mother is still suffering from what she experienced in the holocaust. His father loves him, but, like many men of his generation, he finds it hard to show that love. And Dovaleh, who has the potential to be so much, who is intelligent and funny and shows flashes of kindness, has no real chance of meeting that potential – his individuality sets him firmly outside and he suffers for that.
Like the audience in the little club in Netanya, it was hard to know whether to laugh or cry. This is an unsettling novel, but it is beautifully crafted, and highly recommended.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy