Joshua Cohen's novel 'Moving Kings' is brilliant

Joshua Cohen’s third novel, “Moving Kings,” is a brilliant book whose brilliance comes via a bait and switch. It opens as a comic portrait of a midlife crisis, but concludes as a somber cautionary tale frothing with cataclysms, including fire and gunplay. It starts tucked deep into a subculture — in this case the peculiarities of running a New York City-area moving company — but expands to consume whole swaths of race and religion. It comes on as unassuming yet stylish, but circles around tricky questions of occupation and power in the U.S. and Israel. And yet none of it feels messy or overreaching — indeed, it feels master-planned to slowly unsettle your convictions, as the best novels do

If any contemporary novelist is primed to write with such breadth and command, it’s Cohen, who’s best known for a pair of hypermaximalist novels: 2010’s “Witz,” an 800-page imagining of a modern-day annihilation of Jews, and 2015’s “Book of Numbers,” a 600-page peroration on Internet culture. “Moving Kings” is similarly ambitious, but at a more book-club-friendly length.

Early on we meet David King, owner of the firm King’s Moving, who’s gathering some household wares for his cousin Yoav, who plans to spend some time in the United States after his mandatory stint in the Israel Defense Forces. There’s a hint of bigger themes in David’s name, as well as in Cohen’s observation of the warehouse of castoff goods David picks from, “deprived of their relationships with their owners.” King's Moving seems to spend as much time disrupting homes as settling them, cleaning out evicted and foreclosed homes in Brooklyn and Queens.

But David mostly recalls the successful, neurotic assimilated Jewish men of Philip Roth’s ’70s novels. David’s grasp of (and interest in) Israeli politics was largely limited to a youthful stint on a “commie polyamory kibbutz.” He’s a philanderer with an estranged daughter (her “student friends … all majored in communications but minored in avoiding interactions with parents”), but he treats his foibles lightly. Even Yoav’s arrival is the stuff of shtick. When David explains that Yoav’s break is “like to calm down, whatever,” a colleague responds, “From what? From killing Arabs?” “That’s it, from killing Arabs,” he replies, dripping sarcasm.

Yoav and his fellow IDF vet, Uri, are new to the country and new to the language. Of such things are conventional American assimilation novels usually made. But Cohen’s chief provocation in “Moving Kings” is to suggest that their stints patrolling the West Bank have prepared them for the work of casually trashing out the homes of poor and destitute Tri-State denizens. The pair have enough callousness baked into them, Cohen suggests, to be successful Americans. “Committing petty theft by accident, and not by accident … leaving everything empty, leaving everything a mess — who would’ve guessed that the army had been training him for moving?” Cohen writes. “Which meant that moving was what — a duty? A calling? A job? Another occupation?”

That’s a debatable comparison — are poor Americans truly as stateless and disenfranchised as Palestinians? — but Cohen has the nerve to see the idea through to its limits. A later chapter (pointedly subtitled “Another Occupation”) focuses on Avery, a black Vietnam vet who converted to Islam, then slips off the cliff of everyday survival and succumbs to addiction. Charged with cleaning out Avery’s home “before the developers snarled up for the workweek in their bulldozers,” the King’s Moving workers (thugs? soldiers?) are as eager to proclaim themselves victims of circumstance as Avery was. “I’m not … the Jew to pity, not the Israeli to condemn,” Yoav insists. But he has a home to go to at night.

Cohen is persuasive in suggesting a relationship between bottom-rung lives in America and the West Bank. But an equivalence? That’s trickier. To do that, he’d have to show more of Yoav and Uri in their army days, and more of the lives they casually impinged on there. He’d also have to dive deeper into their heads than he does. Uri, for instance, had a capacity for easy cruelty: “A woman keening in the kitchen to the pitch of boiling water, you shut her up with the butt of your gun.” But how much of this is connected to IDF culture, or Israeli life, or Uri’s own flaws is an open question.

Even so, Cohen has a brain-on-fire intellect and a Balzac-grade enthusiasm for understanding varieties of experience, which encourages the reader to stick with his provocations. So that sense of humor comes in handy, as does Cohen’s language, which is rich with coinages and run-on riffs and mind-bending metaphors: When Uri smokes weed, his “brain flew out of his mouth all wet and winged and gooey and purpurogenous.” (Though the occasional homely sentence glops out too, as if from a malfunctioning plastic extruder: “Rubbleshouldered Route 1 rose into eyesquint and earpop.”)

“His brain wasn’t wired for prayer, just panic,” Cohen writes early on of David King, who unwittingly set this dynamic of neurosis and aggression in motion. That’s true of most of the characters in “Moving Kings,” who are shaped by their religious backgrounds but not exactly moved to calm or compassion because of them. In fact, the closing pages of the novel suggest quite the opposite.

Americans and Israelis may not be engaged in the same conflict, but they share a similar challenge in solving complicated questions of faith, race and the law. Cohen’s book is a comic and harrowing study of the consequences of ignoring them.

Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”

Moving Kings

By Joshua Cohen

Random House: 256 pp., $26

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