Though Dov Greenstein calls himself “a whore for laughs,” the laughter is squeezed through a grimace and irrigated with tears. Dovaleh G, as he dubs himself, is a stand-up comic, a practitioner of the lonely, lacerating art of exposing himself for the amusement of strangers. He is an Israeli version of a Pagliacci or a Pierrot, a sad, bad clown, who, like Billy Crystal in “Mr. Saturday Night’’ and Robert De Niro in “The Comedian,’’ struggles to translate private pain into public mirth.
Israeli author David Grossman’s latest novel, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, takes place entirely within a nightclub in the coastal town of Netanya one Thursday evening in August. It is Dov’s 57th birthday, and, clad in torn jeans, cowboy boots, and red suspenders with gold clips, he is celebrating it by beguiling and berating a small audience with an agonizing autobiographical monologue. He says he needs the money to pay alimony to three ex-wives and support for five children, but his compulsion springs from deeper sources than a depleted bank account. Sitting in the audience is Avishai Lazar, the novel’s narrator.
Shortly after coming on stage, Dov, a Hebrew Don Rickles, begins insulting his audience, ridiculing their stupidity. “Why are you dumbasses laughing?” he asks. “That joke was about you!” The caustic self-portrait he paints throughout the evening turns out to be a mirror held up to the audience — and the reader. Dov dutifully offers nightclub patrons the requisite raunchy jokes – about a foul-mouthed parrot, about a Frenchman, an Italian and a Jew, and about the horse that walks into a bar. But those who came for comedy are disappointed. “How ‘bout a joke or two, dude?” one demands. “We came to hear jokes!” However, the mordant funnyman’s routine ends up recounting the circumstances of the first funeral he ever attended, at age 14. Most of the evening becomes a toxic excursion into his past, what he calls “my own private Chernobyl.” It is harrowing memoir masquerading as show biz.
Dov focuses on an adolescent trauma, during the summer he spent at a paramilitary camp in the arid Arava region of southern Israel. He is unexpectedly summoned by the commanding officer and assigned a driver to transport him back to Jerusalem as soon as possible. He is told merely that one of his parents has died. Dov spends the journey wondering whether he should be mourning his mother, a Holocaust survivor who now works in a munitions factory, or his abusive father, a barber who deals in black-market goods on the side. As memories of each flit in and out of his mind, he believes that the power of his thoughts will determine whether it is his mother or his father who lives. If so, he must bear the burden of knowing that he has committed either patricide or matricide.
The evening with Dovaleh G is filtered through the eyes of the narrator, Avishai, a widowed retired judge. Avishai and Dov were acquaintances when both were 14, and Avishai was present when Dov was driven away to a parent’s funeral. However, the two lost touch after that, and Avishai is stunned when, 43 years later, he suddenly receives a phone call from Dov asking him to attend his performance. Avishai considers stand-up comedy “a pretty pathetic form of entertainment,” and he is puzzled over why, after all these years, Dov would single him out to be his witness. He reluctantly agrees.
Throughout the evening, one disgruntled audience member after another walks out. They came to be amused, not abused, and not forced to endure a stranger’s painful personal confessions. At several points, Avishai is on the verge of leaving, but he sticks it out and fulfills what he senses is his responsibility to Dov, narrating what he observes. Avishai, who was dismissed from the bench for intemperate comments in open court, recognizes a secret affinity with Dov. Not so secret is Avishai’s affinity with the reader, who might be turned off by Dov’s abrasiveness but keeps turning pages. Like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, he is both enraging and engaging. Grossman’s short, blunt novel, a departure from such earlier books as “To the End of the Land’’ and “See Under: Love,’’ is as cunning and compelling as the stand-up guy at its center. In this funnyman’s sad, grotesque performance, Grossman reaffirms his power to entertain and unnerve.
A HORSE WALKS INTO A BAR
By David Grossman
Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
Knopf, 194 pp, $24.95Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth’’ and “The Translingual Imagination.’’