The acclaimed author of To the End of the Land now gives us a searing short novel about the life of a standup comic as revealed in the course of one evening’s performance–comedy that will lean inexorably toward tragedy.

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In drama, film and fiction, comic turns usually bomb. But in his new novel, a monologue intercut with the judge’s memories, David Grossman, a fine Israeli writer, dares to turn the spotlight on a real, if ruinous, talent. Although an embittered, multiply divorced cancer survivor from a family blighted by the Holocaust, Dovaleh can elicit a “laugh of wonder at his precision, his subtlety, his theatrical wisdom”. The crowd, even the hecklers, become “partners in some sort of evasive, fluid transgression”.

It takes an author of Mr Grossman’s stature to channel not a failed stand-up but a shockingly effective one, and to give him salty, scabrous gags that—in Jessica Cohen’s savoury translation—raise a guilty laugh. Dovaleh’s edgy, “tightrope-walking” shtick narrows into a lacerating narrative of the cadet camp where, at 14, he learned of a parent’s death. The tortured judge’s own misery is compounded by the recent death of his wife. As the punters drift away, Mr Grossman unearths the twisted roots of both men’s self-disgust.

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