Books: The darkest of humor

Legendary Israeli writer David Grossman takes on something new in his tale of a stand-up comedian.

A theater stage (photo credit: MOHAMMAD JANGDA/FLICKR)
A theater stage
David Grossman understands deep in his gut that standup comedy can be a deadly serious business, a form of prayer perhaps disguised as secular prose.
Usually, there are countless silly jokes, vulgarities, and the unrelenting tension of a funny-looking man sweating profusely under a harsh spotlight while speaking into a distorted mic. But ultimately, the comic is asking for the same things someone who prays is. He wants mercy, repentance, forgiveness, acceptance and perhaps an outlet for the rage and confusion that overwhelm him.
I didn’t think I could love Grossman or his wondrous writing more than I do after reading his masterwork To the End of the Land. It tells the story of a terrified Israeli mother walking endlessly through the Israeli landscape, afraid to go home in case news would arrive about her son who was serving in the IDF. She believed that if she kept walking, he would be spared.
The book was written both before and after Grossman lost his precious boy Uri in the Second Lebanon War, and Grossman returned to the book slowly afterward, convinced it would somehow resuscitate him. Uri had often collaborated with him on the book on visits home.
Grossman’s new work, A Horse Walks into a Bar, is like nothing he has ever attempted before, and it speaks softly to his continual mourning and search for meaning.
It revolves around Dovaleh Greenstein, a 57-year-old comic who sets out one night to perform a memory-bending performance piece in a dingy nightclub in a small town in Israel which is unprepared for his planned exorcism.
Dovaleh riffs about his failed marriages and his fractured relationships with his children. There are the usual gags about Palestinians and the obstinacy of both the Left and the Right, interspersed with tidbits from his own shattered childhood.
His mother, whom he used to entertain with stories and comic bits, was a traumatized soul from her own experiences in the Holocaust. His father was a stern man; far too loose with his hands.
Dovaleh begins to tell the crowd about his mother’s experiences with Mengele, using the blackest of humor to temper the blow. He explains: “But only Dad, my father himself, the sly bastard, missed out big-time on Mengele studies, because he immigrated to Israel as a pioneer 30 seconds before it all started over there. Mom ran straight into him, though, the doctor, I mean, and her whole family did, too. You could say, in fact, that in his own special way he was like our family doctor, you know? Not so?... And just think about how even though the guy was so busy, with people coming over to see him from all over Europe, climbing over each other on trains to get to him, still, he found time to meet with each person individually. Although, he absolutely refused to allow second opinions. You could only see him, and only for a short consultation: right, left, left, left....”
Many in the audience sat stunned by his story and were unable to avert their gaze, but others got up in disgust and started leaving, which Dovaleh marked on a blackboard with white chalk slashes as each one departed, a gesture that seemed to express his own harrowing isolation.
Dovaleh’s mother had always been his entire world, particularly when his father wasn’t home, and they shared an enviable bond that involved Dovaleh doing everything and anything he could to keep her from sinking. Neighbors gossiped about her, and she rarely left the house. When he could make her smile, he felt a joy he never felt with anyone else again. When he left her for a few short weeks at 14 to train as a cadet with other future Israeli soldiers, he was told suddenly to return home for a funeral, but not informed which parent had died.
The bus ride home, which takes up a good part of Grossman’s incendiary narrative, involves his thought process as he prepares for the worst. A bus driver who knew there was trouble but wasn’t sure what it was tries to cheer him up with jokes, and Dovaleh tries to engage with him, but his head keeps rolling back in a despair that will chase him for the rest of his life.
When he sees his father and knows his mother is gone, he starts to run away on his hands, convinced that he is no longer able to look at the world right side up. It simply is too painful. He doesn’t want to see the expression on anyone’s face.
Some in the crowd become increasingly uncomfortable and begin to jeer at him.
An old friend, a judge, is there and tries to defend him. He remembers Dovaleh from 30 years ago, when they experienced a brief but intense friendship. He remembers Dovaleh was the boy who taught him how to talk to girls in a way that reached their hearts, something he knows now he would not have figured out on his own.
Watching his old friend, he wonders if perhaps he has gone mad.
But moments later, as Dovaleh manipulates the crowd to stay with him even while he digresses, the judge marvels at his old friend’s ability to seduce people into his own magical universe. He asks “How did he do that? I wonder. How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into his hostages?” There is also a strange old woman in the crowd who remembers Dovaleh and his mother, and looks at him sadly throughout the show, irritating him with her quiet kindness.
Dovaleh bounces back and forth between his own personal story and the usual banter of comedy-club fare. He talks about his parents’ marriage, claiming his father loved his mother but did not touch her the way a man should touch a woman he loves – something that still bothers him. He turns suddenly to current events, eviscerating the United Nations for its incessant antisemitism and claiming that if the Jews cured cancer, the United Nations would issue an edict claiming that cancer isn’t such a bad thing after all. He mocks the solemnity of the settlers and, when all else fails, goes for the usual gags about aging women and plastic surgery and the tedium of marriage.
In little more than 200 pages, Grossman brings us to the nerve center of his psyche, and we recognize we have witnessed something impossibly sacred, an act of remembering his mother’s life that is both scorched and sanctified. He shows us an alternative route to a different level of consciousness and allows us to viscerally experience his mother’s loss alongside him. But the real miracle is that he resurrects her for us, too, and for just a few moments we believe we can hear her breathe.