Admit it: You picked up Joshua Cohen’s 800-page epic “Witz” but decided life was too short. A few years later, you thought maybe you’d tackle his 600-page “Book of Numbers,” but a novel by the New York novelist Joshua Cohen about a New York novelist named Joshua Cohen sounded like a postmodern migraine.
Now you’re out of excuses. Granta recently named Cohen one of the best young American novelists, and his new book, “Moving Kings,” is a svelte comic triumph that concentrates his genius. Here, in a story inflected by verbal dexterity but not overwhelmed by it, Cohen explores themes of power and Jewish identity with the same insight that has justly attracted praise from some of the country’s most sophisticated writers.
“Ye shall know them by their vehicles,” he begins with mock-Biblical solemnity. These vehicles are trucks that belong to David King, president of King’s Moving, known throughout the New York metropolitan area for its corny TV commercials. Sadly, the success of David’s business life belies the failure of his personal life. His wife has left him after a vicious divorce, and despite giving his college-age daughter everything, including a brownstone in Crown Heights, she’s a spoiled wreck.
Just as David is feeling desperate for family validation, he receives an email request to host his Israeli cousin Yoav, who recently finished his mandatory military service. David is not a particularly religious man — “His brain wasn’t wired for prayer, just panic” — but the Jewish state offers him something essential: “The ideal of it, the abstraction — to have family in the country was to have the country in the family.” And so, freighted with wildly overblown expectations, Yoav is invited, “like a son, arriving from across the seas.”
Yoav is not entirely as expected: neither an impressive Israeli warrior nor the likely heir of a moving empire. Holed up in one of David’s spare apartments crammed with repossessed furniture, he finds civilian life and particularly civilian life in the United States baffling. When is the weekend? Who are the Jews and who are the goyim? It doesn’t help that he speaks English with an “Exeter/Devonshire/American media mongrel accent, like that of an effeminate Berber pirate.” But nonetheless, for a few days David parades Yoav around like a hero to a host of “cooing Jews” and then puts him to work on one of his moving crews.
The clash of expectations between a rough American businessman and an Israeli innocent abroad provides the basis for some smart comedy, and Cohen is particular adept with moments of silly absurdity. He also exercises a fantastically agile style that pushes hard against the banisters of traditional grammar. The novel’s voice freely veers into these characters’ minds, picking up their thoughts and accents, mixing with the narrator’s own straight-faced asides.
But for all its domestic humor, there’s barbed wire running through this story, stretching tight from New York to the West Bank. The moving business, after all, is not just a matter of transporting happy families to bigger homes. Much of David’s profit is squeezed from evictions: emptying people’s apartments as their lives careen toward ruin. The nefarious nature of that work first drops into the novel in the form of an impassioned letter reproduced without introduction or comment. Addressed to “Whom It May Concern At The Bank,” it’s written by a desperate single mother who describes the horror of being forcibly removed from her home. “I was sleeping in bed with My son,” she writes. “He was scared and scared Me by messing His pjs and screaming. He did not understand how You could just enter Our House like it was Yours in the night and start packing everything, start taking everything.” Her plaintive cry, which we know will go unanswered, echoes the misery of so many others without enough money or sophistication or connections to enjoy an unviolated life.
For Yoav, it’s a familiar cry. He heard it all the time while serving in Israel. Breaking into Palestinian homes, hustling the frightened residents out, searching through their possessions: It was not so different from what he does now in New York where, Cohen writes, “his weapons were the harness and dolly, his uniform a blue zipup onesie. . . . Who would’ve guessed that the army had been training him for moving?” Some of the places they’re sent to empty have been grotesquely desecrated before they show up; some of the evictions even attract violent protesters, just as they did 5,000 miles away on that strip of contentious land.
This comparison would feel irritatingly polemical if Cohen didn’t subsume it in a larger lament for the plight of powerless people — including Yoav. Tasked with cleaning out yet another house lost in foreclosure, hauling and packing and hauling and packing, Yoav drifts back to his military training: “What did it mean that it was always easier to labor than to question, always easier to sweat than to ask? It dulled the mind but that wasn’t all, it also dulled whatever muscle was responsible for judgment. What was effective, what wasn’t. What was wrong and what was right. This was actually the most traumatic lesson of the army, that the most atrocious things they’d ever done were just the products of repetition.”
As subtly as water seeps into sand, the comedy drains from this story, and we’re left in the stark moral desert where Yoav is stranded. Speaking to another young Israeli who works for Cousin Dave, Yoav complains, “We’ve always just been forced to become who we are and still everyone has an opinion about it, treating us like we chose this.” Leaving the army, even leaving Israel, has made no difference. “Everywhere we go we’re Israelis, and if not that, we’re Jews. Everywhere we’re the Jews of Jews,” he says. “The only way I can separate myself from it all, in the minds of other people, even in my own mind, is to admit to what a piece of s--- I was as a soldier.”
As “Moving Kings” hurtles toward its explosive conclusion, Cohen keeps expanding the implications of his story. Suddenly, the disparate tragedies of our world feel oddly connected by the bodies of the powerless set against one another.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Joshua Cohen
Random House. 256 pp. $26