A comedic clash in “Mov­ing Kings”

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ron Charles

FIC­TION

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 “Mov­ing Kings” hur­tles to­ward its ex­plo­sive con­clu­sion, Co­hen keeps ex­pand­ing the im­pli­ca­tions of his story.

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