Mov­ing Kings: A Novel

  • Review
By – April 28, 2017

Joshua Cohen’s grip­ping, atmos­pher­ic new nov­el bursts with vivid char­ac­ters and action aplen­ty. Yet it is also a tragedy that pon­ders why human lives come to bad ends. How much is due to bad choic­es, and how much to destiny?

David King, who inher­it­ed the mov­ing-and-stor­age busi­ness Kings Mov­ing, swerves back and forth between legit­i­mate busi­ness and cor­rup­tion. His instinct is always to assess what works to his own advan­tage; decen­cy and the law are just fac­tors in his calculations.

Only one thing inspires him emo­tion­al­ly: Israel, the incar­na­tion of an ances­try, a mys­tery, a prim­i­tive sig­nif­i­cance.” When his cousin Yoav, whom he bare­ly knows, fin­ish­es a stint in the Israel Defense Forces, David doesn’t think twice about pro­vid­ing him with a job and a home.

A sen­si­tive man, Yoav Matzav (his last name means sit­u­a­tion,” how things are”) has led a pas­sive life, doing what he had to in the army, both in the Gaza war and lat­er at a Pales­tin­ian check­point. His aggres­sive squad mate Uri Dugri (“no-non­sense”) joins him in New York, also work­ing ille­gal­ly for Kings Mov­ing. On-the-job expe­ri­ence teach­es them which cus­tomers they can take advan­tage of, and which ones to treat with care: a hier­ar­chy of race and class.

Their work as movers is not very dif­fer­ent from their ser­vice in the IDF, swarm­ing the hous­es of strangers, tak­ing fur­ni­ture apart, break­ing shit by acci­dent, and not by acci­dent.” Both jobs traf­fic in pos­ses­sion and dis­pos­ses­sion. The mil­i­tary anal­o­gy isn’t casu­al; each house­hold move, we’re told, is like a mis­sion. In case the par­al­lels weren’t already clear enough, there are even inci­dents in New York involv­ing the abuse of an Arab shop­keep­er and a con­vert to Islam.

At first this premise might sound like a crude polit­i­cal anal­o­gy intend­ed to deplore Israel’s behav­ior toward Pales­tini­ans. Char­ac­ters do say things like Israel’s the rogue state at this point.” But if the actions of movers are com­pa­ra­ble to dis­pos­ses­sion in Pales­tine, shouldn’t the mov­ing and stor­age busi­ness inspire equal protest? The larg­er point is that pow­er­ful peo­ple take advan­tage of the pow­er­less when they want to, regard­less of the spe­cif­ic context.

Yet con­text can’t be escaped. In Israel, Uri once received advice from a won­der­work­ing sage called the Baba Batra (named for a trac­tate in the Tal­mud that deals with inher­i­tance). The rab­bi admon­ished, you can’t stop being a sol­dier, just like you can’t stop being a Jew.” A soldier’s des­tiny is to fol­low orders, repeat­ing the same actions again and again, with­out regard to his own wishes.

David King also suc­cumbs to rep­e­ti­tion in the ways he treats the women in his life, his clients, and his employ­ees, slid­ing ineluctably toward fail­ure. His daugh­ter works for a social-jus­tice non­prof­it and tries to be every­thing David’s not, yet she buys drugs ille­gal­ly. Yoav tries to break free of his past but fails to escape it. The tragedy is that no one can choose the sit­u­a­tion into which they’re born. Each of us can only try, again and again, to cope with what we’re given.

In terms of of craft, this nov­el aston­ish­es on every page. The nar­ra­tive verve, the wealth of detail about on-stage and off-stage char­ac­ters, and the rich descrip­tions of places and events, bear com­par­i­son to Tol­stoy. That alone would be enough to dis­tin­guish this book, but its engage­ment with peren­ni­al ques­tions of exis­tence — what it means to be at home, or a vis­i­tor, or to medi­ate between the two — rais­es it to an even high­er lev­el that few writ­ers can attain. Joshua Cohen has proven him­self yet again to be a major voice in con­tem­po­rary fiction.

Find more works by Joshua Cohen here.

Discussion Questions