The Grid Beneath the Grid in Joshua Cohen’s ‘Moving Kings’

A visceral, intelligent look at the economy of evictions in New York's outer boroughs.

Joshua Cohen seems to enjoy stepping outside the polite bounds of MFA-style fiction, taking risks with language on a sentence-by-sentence level and displaying a restless, demanding intellect that’s as comfortable with the thorny intricacies of mid-century modernism as it is projecting surreal reinterpretations of millennia of Jewish history. His new novel, Moving Kings, bears the same intelligence but shifts gears from the intimidating length and brainy subjects of his last two novels Witz and Book of Numbers to offer a lean, physical evocation of New York’s outer boroughs.

The title refers to the company founded by David King, a hustler from Queens whose moving business (with a more lucrative sideline in repossessions) has brought him wealth but not the respect of Manhattan’s moneyed class. David wrestles with his heritage as a Jew, often leaning into whatever assumptions people make about him while trying to impress his financially dependent but otherwise dismissive daughter.

David is only at centerstage for the first third of the novel, at which point his young cousin Yoav, fresh out of his mandatory stint in the Israeli army, moves to New York to work for David and becomes the focus along with his former squadmate, Uri. Some of the novel’s best scenes milk the cultural divide between the United States and Israel embodied in the two cousins, whose families fled for separate continents in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As with the Zuckerman family in Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, for David King, Israel serves as a powerful symbol of an alternate life, where first world concerns pale in importance to the primacy of defending the tribe through force.

For Yoav and Uri, crossing the cultural divide in the other direction, the freedom of the United States is utterly bewildering after the regimentation of the army specifically and also Israeli life in general. They also are baffled by their political reception in America, where they’re either lambasted as right-wing occupiers or assumed to be Arabs, the very people the Army taught them to fight. Yoav and Uri are an odd couple, the former worst and best soldiers in their squad, respectively (Uri also saved Yoav’s life), whose fortunes are somewhat reversed outside of the service. Yoav, hosting Uri more out of obligation than affection, is ready to turn the page from his army days and is struggling to define himself outside of the definitions imposed on him by others. Uri, on the other hand, excelled in the service but flails outside of it, finding no outlet for his anger and physicality in the domestic world of his female-dominated household in Israel or in the more complicated value system of New York City.

The overarching theme of Moving Kings is a connection between the stateside economy of evictions and dispossessions and the Israeli state’s program of evicting Palestinians and creating settlements (all in the millennia long context of Jewish disapora). However, this connection is more gestured towards than satisfyingly developed. For all of Cohen’s many gifts in prose and for the breadth of ideas he brings to bear, he has some trouble integrating them into the actual plot of the novel. Most of the ideas are articulated in some form of exposition, while the present tense action remains somewhat separate.Coming on the heels of two very large novels (Book of Numbers and Witz), the 240-page Moving Kings sometimes seems as if Cohen decided in advance to write a short novel against his usual inclinations – it feels less like a successfully succinct short work and more like a strong 350-400 page novel with the connective tissue removed. Cohen introduces many compelling elements only to quickly drop them, exemplified by the fact that David, who serves as a compelling protagonist for the first third of the novel, is relegated to the far background for the remainder, barely even interacting with Yoav and Uri. The climax comes suddenly, after David’s ambition and corner-cutting combine with Uri’s rage to put the Moving Kings on a collision course with tragedy at the eviction of a Vietnam vet and member of the Nation of Islam.

Despite these lapses in unifying theme and plot, Moving Kings is a very rewarding read, often because of the penetrating eye that Cohen casts on New York City. Together with books like Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, Moving Kings shows that most of the best New York novels of recent years have focused on the outer boroughs. With their vans traversing the arteries of the city, the movers are excellent observers of the unseen infrastructure that enables city life;

“This is what the city relied on: the terminals, the channels and trestles, the transmission substations, the transformers and pylons. The grid beneath the grid, the truth that sustained the corruption. That’s what David was always telling his daughter: without all this industry, the bistros would have to stop serving, the $6 latte stands would shut. No phones, no screens.”

David King serves as a conduit between the old money that controls the city’s real estate and the outer borough immigrants that provide its human fuel. This illustration of unseen connections is the greatest strength of Moving Kings; Cohen’s understanding connects the physical city to the cultural currents that course through it, showing how a societies’ values are translated into physical realities and human tragedies.

RATING 7 / 10