Review published on August 1, 2017.
This year Granta named Joshua Cohen one of their Best of Young American Novelists. His previous works include Book of Numbers and Four New Messages. His reputation is for writing long and rather dense fiction that prioritises Jewish themes. To my relief, though, Moving Kings is a short and often engaging book that alternates between New York City and Israel to tell of characters looking for, or jealously guarding, a sense of home and belonging.
Set in 2015, the novel opens with David King of King’s Moving Inc. schmoozing at a July Fourth weekend dinner ($4,000/plate) in the Hamptons that’s being held to raise funds for a Republican senatorial candidate. Impossible not to imagine this character as a modern-day King David, and equally impossible to ignore just how odious he seems: he’s a casual racist, has an ex-wife thanks to his affair with his office manager, sports hair implants and capped teeth that speak of his vanity, and has a dodgy habit of secreting cash assets in Tel Aviv.
The opulence of David’s lifestyle is in stark contrast with the difficult conditions in which so many of his clients live. His warehouse full of repossessed belongings is a testament to desperation, as is a later letter in which a widow whose apartment has been repossessed begs the bank to get her late husband’s watch back for her so she can give it to her son one day.
After David’s twenty-two-year-old cousin Yoav finishes his mandatory military service in Israel, David agrees to let him come to New York and work for King’s. Yoav’s fellow soldier Uri, who’s having a harder time adjusting to civilian life, joins him and they specialise in evictions and seizure of possessions in tough neighbourhoods. Things come to a head when a Vietnam veteran who has defaulted on his mortgage payments refuses to leave his home.
The way the book shifts decisively to focus on Yoav at about the one-third point made me a little disoriented, given how invested I’d become in David’s story. Although Cohen writes evocatively about the Israeli terrain in the flashbacks to David’s first visit there and to Yoav and Uri’s service, I enjoyed the book less and less as it went on.
However, Cohen’s distinctive prose makes the reading experience worthwhile: it’s full of random, witty observations and his own made-up compound words. I especially liked “Everything in the desert became like the desert—everything dusted a caffeine brown spread by tiretread into blackness” and “rubbleshouldered Route 1 rose into eyesquint and earpop.”
I could see this book appealing to readers who have enjoyed novels about the American Jewish experience that also journey to Israel, such as Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer. I was also reminded a bit of David Grossman’s recent A Horse Walks into a Bar. Ultimately, the plot didn’t coalesce for me, but Cohen’s writing is so striking that I’m likely to try more of his work in the future.
Rebecca Foster 3/4
Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen
Fitzcarraldo Editions 9781910695494 pbk Jul 2017