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.