Home Invasion

Moving Kings: A Novel BY Joshua Cohen. Random House. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of Moving Kings: A Novel

Edward Said thought the novel was innately cosmopolitan, a product of migration and the loss of identity that comes with it. “Classical epics,” he argued in Reflections on Exile, “emanate from settled cultures in which values are clear, identities stable, life unchanging. The European novel is grounded in precisely the opposite experience, that of a changing society in which an itinerant and disinherited middle-class hero or heroine seeks to construct a new world that somewhat resembles an old one left behind forever.” In an epic, he wrote, there’s “no other world, only the finality of this one,” whereas the novel “exists because other worlds may exist, alternatives for bourgeois speculators, wanderers, exiles.”

Part of the reason Jewish identity—as well as its association with exile and wandering—is so persistent, Joshua Cohen suggests in Moving Kings, his fifth novel, is because it has been forced to define itself against or outside of the nation. Rituals of dress and religion allow identity to be transposed across time and place. “The point of being a Hasid,” he writes, “was to be the same in every country, in every age.” For Cohen, Stalin’s dog-whistle slur against the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” merely describes a sensible survival strategy: “Wandering was just an emergency measure: the Jews would dwell in a country until that country expelled them, or tried to destroy them, and then they’d have to flee.”

Though written with all the swagger, dazzle, and gonzo humor we’ve come to expect from Cohen, Moving Kings is a focused, efficient novel about the idea of home and its absence, about what it means to be unhomed and what it might feel like to unhome others in turn. It tells the story of David King, a Jewish, gangsterish small-business owner from New Jersey, a sort of low-grade, less criminal Tony Soprano. King got rich in the moving business, but since the 2008 subprime-mortgage crash he’s diversified into evictions. He makes crappy cable TV ads with the tagline “David King the Moving King Will Move Your Mothertrucking Everything.” The ads have something of a cult following among the people of New York.

King’s father, Yudy, and uncle Shoyl were the only members of their family to survive the Nazi death camps, their subsequent life stories charting two paths for the diaspora. Yudy moved to New York, Anglicized his name to “Jay King,” and started moving furniture. Shoyl “staggered around Europe until he reached Trieste, from which he smuggled himself by boat to Corfu, and then to Jaffa in what was Palestine, Hebraicized his name to Sha’ul Ben Kinor.” To be rootless, then, is to reinvent yourself, and such reinventions are never quite freely chosen.

Having made his fortune, David wants to ingratiate himself with the establishment, so he goes to Waspy parties and resents how much influence costs to buy. Unhealthy, with a potbelly and hair plugs, he has had a heart attack but continues to do cocaine. His politics are “aspirational, inferior: he was in favor of contacts, contracts, the right to not diet, and the right to jump lines at dessert stations.” He is divorced from his first wife and has a daughter, Tammy, who dislikes him and, through him, herself. She works for a nonprofit and identifies as an anti-Zionist and a gentrifier, a word that to her father sounds “British, fancy and goyish, like something she couldn’t be, like something he couldn’t be accused of having fathered.” David’s own relationship with Israel is nostalgic. He visited family there as a child, picked lemons on a “commie polyamory kibbutz” in his teens, and returned as an adult to wander around Jerusalem with his Israeli cousin Yoav, viewing everything with the eye of an appraiser: the home mover costing out the homeland, calculating storage rates. “The ark of the covenant had been a box,” he thinks; it “should’ve been easy to port, easy to store, two Puerto Ricans could’ve handled it.”

Simeon Berg/Flickr
Simeon Berg/Flickr

Later Yoav, after fighting in the 2014 Gaza war as part of his compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces, comes over to work illegally for David in New York. “Because there isn’t any work in Israel?” a colleague asks David. “Because there aren’t any houses.” In the IDF, Yoav had been a member of a squad (not “a special unit, just a specialish unit”) responsible for clearing Palestinian homes of their unfortunate inhabitants. He wants to escape the guilt of his past but is unable to: His mover colleagues keep asking him what he did in the army, whether he lost friends, whether he killed people. “He’d miscalculated, apparently,” Cohen writes, “by thinking that to leave Israel he could avoid Israel, could evade the Jews, the news—by thinking, like nearly all the customers he’d moved, that just by changing the walls around him he’d be changed within, as if all that junk that’d been pumped into his head would come tumbling out in the transit.” The equivalence between the kind of work Yoav did in the IDF and now does in New York is never labored, but it strikes him that there are similarities. Like his cousin, he is in the occupation-and-dispossession business, his new targets not Palestinians but the victims of the US housing crisis.

One of Yoav’s old squad mates, a hapless brawler named Uri, joins him in New York but, unlike Yoav, isn’t keen to integrate into American life. He has a little luck with women, and then none. “It was so hard in this city to know who was homo,” he laments. He uses his training in martial arts to attack a bouncer. Then, on one of their jobs, Yoav and Uri encounter a man named Avery Luter, a downtrodden African American veteran who after fighting in the Vietnam War converted to Islam, changing his name to Imamu Nabi. Unable to afford the mortgage payments on his childhood home, Nabi is staging a futile occupation of it. Yoav, Uri, and the team are employed to move in and clear him out, much as they’d done in Gaza. But things go wrong.

Moving Kings has a tighter thematic coherence than some of Cohen’s previous novels, announcing itself as a novel about identity and the violent exiling of people from their homes (and what Nabi thinks of as the “Armageddon war between capitalism and the precariat”). It’s also a more conventional beast. Stylistically, it has more in common with the condensed, aphoristic realism of his short-story collection Four New Messages than with the maximalist riffing of Witz, an eight-hundred-page millennial epic about Benjamin Israelien, the last Jew in the world, which owed something to Joyce’s punning playfulness and something to the bombastic absurdity of Flann O’Brien. Neither does it have much of the metafictional tricksiness of Book of Numbers, an allegory about the internet in which one “Joshua Cohen,” an author, was ghostwriting the autobiography of another “Joshua Cohen,” a sinister tech entrepreneur.

Still, Moving Kings displays much of the magic of all Cohen’s fiction, its savagery of vision and above all its deep commitment to the sentence as a unit of meaning. The questions it raises place the novel in the company of Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, in which a Roth-like doppelgänger spreads a counter-Zionist message of “Diasporism” and, more recently, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, in which an earthquake in Israel ignites a liberal Jewish screenwriter’s latent Zionism. But whereas Roth and Foer seem to take seriously the political, if not the personal, importance of a homeland, Cohen sees such things as limiting: a means of constraining rather than liberating individuals. Yoav feels he has lived his whole life merely following orders, that there’s no getting away from the role his Jewishness has laid out for him. “We’ve always just been forced to become who we are,” he complains, “and still everyone has an opinion about it, treating us like we chose this.”

The itinerancy of Cohen’s sentences—their fusion of portent and sentimentality; their glorious, preening self-confidence—enacts something of the wandering his characters experience as well. His abiding influences are still discernible (Cohen is fond of Joycean flourishes, giving us “bugswarmed LED luminaires” and an “asswarmed wallet”), but they are deployed in a more controlled, more directed manner than they have been in some of his earlier work. On every page there’s a description or observation with a clarity and freshness that shocks you with the thrill of recognition. Consider this: “Winter knocks once, and then knocks the door down, unrolls its white prayer rug over everything. Winter, that once a year prayer. You’ve got to be ready for it.” Or this, on the interior of a deli: “Past the sneezeguarded steamtray, an orb of meat rotated within molten coils.” Or wood that “cracked like it was breathing, releasing the ghosts from its grain,” and CCTV cameras “mounted in domes” that hang “like teardrops cried by the ceiling.” Sometimes Cohen begins a paragraph as though embarking on a difficult and potentially dangerous journey, so that you read on not necessarily because you want to know what happens next but because you want to know what the sentences will do. How will they come back down to Earth? Will they make it home?

Jon Day teaches English at King’s College, London, and is the author of Cyclogeography (Notting Hill Editions, 2016).