The King of the Bitter Laugh

Dominique Nabokov
David Grossman, Jerusalem, 1997


David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar is not funny; in fact it might be one of the least funny novels I have ever read. True, it is about an aging Israeli stand-up comedian, Dov (aka Dovaleh) Greenstein, and in the course of chronicling his performance one night at a seedy comedy club in a small town in Israel, Grossman includes many examples of his patter. Some of it is of the reassuringly familiar kind, featuring schlemiels and schlimazels, schmendricks and schmucks, assembled in such collections as Michael Krasny’s recent anthology of Jewish jokes, Let There Be Laughter.1

“The angel of death,” Dov calls out to three law students in his audience, “appears before a lawyer and says his time has come. The lawyer starts crying and wailing: ‘But I’m only forty!’ Angel of death says, ‘Not according to your billable hours!’” If that doesn’t seem sufficiently ethnic, here is another in Dov’s repertoire that is much closer to the canonical form:

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 screams 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 hands on the curtains.”

But these jokes, which at least have the modest virtues of both predictability and bad taste, quickly give way to something deliberately appalling and offensive:

There’s an Arab walking down the street next to two settlers in Hebron. We’ll call him Little Ahmed…. All of a sudden they hear an army loudspeaker announcing curfew for Arabs starting in five minutes. The settler takes his rifle off his shoulder and puts a bullet through Little Ahmed’s head. The other one is a wee bit surprised: “Holy crap, my holy brother, why’d you do that?” Holy Brother looks at him and goes, “I know where he lives, there’s no way he was gonna make it home in time.”

If we had not realized it already, we know now that Grossman’s comedian is leading us into a very dark room, where the exit signs are all extinguished.

In Grossman’s celebrated 2008 novel, To the End of the Land,…

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