Cohen, Joshua. “Moving Kings: A Novel”, Random House, 2017.
Faith, Race, Class and Home
One of the loud voices of his generation, Joshua Cohen proves himself to also be one of the boldest voices with his new novel “Moving Kings” in which he brings together the housing crisis in this country in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods with the conflict, in the Middle East.
Set in 2015, we meet twenty-one-year-olds Yoav and Uri, veterans of the last Gaza War who have just completed their compulsory military service in the Israel Defense Forces. In keeping with national tradition, they take a year off for rest, recovery, and travel. They decide to come to New York City and begin working for Yoav’s distant cousin, David King who is a proud American patriot, Republican, and Jew, and owner of King’s Moving Inc., one of the big companies in the tri-state area’s moving and storage industries. David is so also newly divorced. Yoav and Uri have been away from civilian life in Israel and now they must face becoming part of American civilian life. However, as one who served in the Israel Defense Forces during wartime, I can tell you that this is a difficult task. It is never easy moving past having been told what to do in an army situation and the young men find it especially difficult to spend their days evicting people in slum homes knowing this is all they can afford. Not only do they put people out, they take their possessions as payment for what they owe. What begins as a profitable job that is eerily familiar soon becomes something that resembles the occupation and reaches violence with one homeowner who is out for revenge.
Author Cohen contrasts Israeli veterans with America veterans and this is quite a harsh contrast. We see divergent cultures as well and Cohen goes a step further by bringing biblical metaphors as well. I realized this the moment I saw the name of the character, David King. Yet the real focus is on
the two ex-IDF infantrymen, Yoav and Uri. I doubt that Yoav being the Israeli first cousin-once-removed of King expected to be evicting tenants and throwing their belongings to the street and I am that Uri likewise did not as well.
The story comes to us in three parts. In the first part we meet David King and learn of his business and his visits to Israel. We learn that he is awkward at political fundraisers but has been able to connect to a Wasp real estate developer and the consequences for this, we see at the end of the book. We also pick up on his past shady business that he took care of while in Israel. David had first gone to visit Israel with his mother and father to meet a lost uncle. He also went to work on a kibbutz after college and then again later as a well-off businessman primarily to establish a tax shelter, ostensibly to visit his cousin Dina and her family (including the young Yoav). We see right away that David is the ugly American, playing the system and benefiting from the misfortune of others. As Cohen says, he is a capitalist.
The second part concentrates on Yoav and Uri and their experiences as Israeli soldiers and as civilian citizens of Israel dealing the aftermath of military service. Many first time soldiers take time, a year or so off after completing compulsory duty. Yoav comes to the states, and Uri will follow him later. Their work for David keeps them busy and often reminds them of one of the duties they had to deal with while soldiers involving the degradation of home invasion as required by the IDF. The young men have a difficult time living the civilian lifestyle and are more comfortable in the role of soldier even Brooklyn and the Bronx.
In part three, we meet Avery Luter, a Vietnam veteran, convert to Islam, toll collector. Luter is a metaphor for America’s failure and he becomes something of a catalyst to remind us of some shameful American history for which we are still feeling the consequences and for which society is still dealing with and there seems to be no end in sight.
My problem with the novel is personal as I grew up in an American Jewish family with a David King from which I eventually ran away, moved to Israel, joined the army and came back many years later. Since I personally experienced so much of what I read here, there were times when I could decide if I wanted to laugh or cry or do both at the same time. Because of that this was a difficult read for me yet I must say that I marvel at the prose and the vocabulary and I love the anger and the playfulness of Joshua Cohen’s voice. Sometimes we have to read about ourselves to understand our lives more clearly. While, in essence, this is a story about what ties hold a family together, we see that those ties are not as secure as we might think. I read that one reviewer has said that this is the troubled story of a troubled life and I am not sure that I agree with that. This is surely the story of a life but I believe it depends upon the reader to decide if it is a troubled life. Rather I see this as a novel about home and what that means. How does not feel to take away homes from those that need them and how is it possible to live a moral life after that? How does one life in the absence of the home and is an army base a substitute for home.
Cohen deals with some very big issues including the meaning of being Jewish, an issue I deal with everyday because I feel so lucky to be Jewish yet without understanding all of the intricacies of the religion. I cannot help but wonder how a non-Jewish reader will understand what is here.
I have not covered everything here nor can I and I probably do not want to do so because I want everyone to experience the book. Most noticeably is that I have not said anything about David’s affiliation with the Republican Party. I also have not touched the idea that there is a theme here about proving how we exist. And these are just for starters. Cohen, in effect, asks us if it is possible to live a good Jewish life if there is nothing to fight for. What we see is that we are in a constant state of movement and it is easier for me to quote this than to try to say it differently—“moving from army service to civilian life, moving from childhood to maturity, moving through those ever-present states of internal and external combat, striving to move forward when the world is turning backwards”.
The real beauty here is that if I read this book again, I might just throw this entire review away and start over concentrating on other aspects of the novel. That is truly what great literature is.