The Occupation of America: Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen

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Losing one’s home, as Matthew Desmond’s Evicted describes, “reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.” The 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book documents the real-life stories of tenants and landlords alike, offering an even-handed account of what eviction looks like in America. The afterword explains the years-long research process that went into writing about the subject up close: “You do this by building rapport with the people… until you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they think, and feel something like they feel.”

Highly focused on evictee and evictor, Desmond’s book spends less time with the moving men who actually carry out the job. Joshua Cohen’s new novel, Moving Kings, attempts that work. David King owns a lucrative furniture-schlepping business specializing in distressed properties. His younger cousin, Yoav, has just finished up his stint in the Israeli military and has decided to fly to New York City to earn money for his manual labor. Stepping out of JFK’s terminal four, he is:

A man, or boy… plane-sweaty, rumpled in a sleeveless white vneck with way too severe of a v and a pair of collegiate gray sweatpants that hung only to his calves, canvas sneaks. He had a buzzcut. He had his mother’s nose, crushed flat but spanning his face. He stopped at the gumsmacked curb, straddled his wheeled duffle and adjusted his balls.

The arrival of Yoav—and later his “friend and squadmate, Corporal Uri Dugri”—promises a much-needed lift to David’s spirits, as he has recently endured a divorce and a heart attack. That Yoav is not exactly close family—they’ve only met once before, when the Israeli was barely older than a toddler—is no concern for David, who finds himself “yearning, but not for the immediate, for the far.” Financially successful but otherwise sour on life, the moving-business mogul is searching for meaning in his Jewish roots; Yoav is a way to connect with that heritage. As Cohen explains, what “bolstered [David] was Israel: the ideal of it, the abstraction—to have family in the country was to have the country in the family.”

Author of multiple works of fiction, including Book of Numbers and Witz, a novel which imagines a world with only one Jew, Cohen writes compellingly about the Jewish experience. The first sections of Moving Kings focus on David and Yoav—the book’s best-drawn characters—and occasionally arrive at gripping moments of emotional sincerity. In an early exchange between the cousins, David reveals to Yoav his insecurities about his own sense of identity: “Unlike me, Yo, you’re a real Jew. This is who you are naturally, grown up from the land.” Similarly poignant is this musing during David’s drive through Israel years ago: “Every sign told you how far you were from the airport, as if it were important to be constantly aware of the precise kilometer distance between this life and an escape.”

If such passages stand out in this reader’s mind, perhaps it’s because the novel overall evinces such an aversion to anything remotely sentimental. Cohen presents his male characters (and there are almost no women to be found in this book) in their unvarnished grossness, bordering on the grotesque. When we meet David, he’s attending a billionaire-filled New York State Republican Committee donor event in the Hamptons when “his mind flash[es] below his belt, which was on its last notch, and below his gut, which hung like a panting tongue over it, to his bloodless dick.” Similarly, when we watch Moving Kings tear through what was once someone’s home, with movers “honk[ing] out… mucus cusp[s]” and “roaches scuttl[ing] out of a carton of noodles,” we are witness to the stomach-churning nature of their work. (I could’ve excerpted something far more unsavory.) By showing his characters at their most revolting, the author tests the limits of their redemption.

Cohen, however, is not simply after shock value. His novel is more interested in horrors suppressed than luridly described, particularly in the case of war-hardened Yoav and Uri. The gruesome details from their military service go unmentioned, and thus become more haunting. “The most traumatic lesson of the army,” Cohen writes, was “that the most atrocious things they’d ever done were just the products of repetition. The missions, which had felt like maneuvers, which had felt like training scenarios… One step after another.”

The central conceit of Moving Kings—that evicting a New Yorker who has failed to make rent can be compared to dispossessing a Palestinian of her home in a military raid—is an intriguing albeit treacherous one. If Cohen pulls it off, it’s because he addresses the comparability question head-on, eschewing innuendo:

Back under the Occupation, there had been shooting and here in America there was no shooting, or none aimed at them. Back under the Occupation, there had been sleepless stretches with nothing to eat and nothing to drink and here in America there were scheduled breaks and just a staggering range of fastfood options for both takeout and delivery. Also, in the IDF they’d been able to smash things. If they bumped into a Palestinian chair or desk or even a human intact, they could smash it, they could call in a convoy of Doobi D9s to dismantle and raze, or a formation of F16s to fly in and cave the roofs and blast the walls into sand and sprinkle the foundations with phosphorous—but here in New York, they had to salvage.

Otherwise, the work they were doing wasn’t too different.

A chair is a desk is a human is an obstruction; the IDF taught Yoav and Uri to follow orders with a single-minded focus. The two employ a similar approach in the service of Moving Kings, though Yoav is more contemplative than the hot-headed Uri sporting “aviator sunglasses tangling with his unibrow.”

Describing Cohen’s writing style, The Baffler used the phrase “Nabokovian pyrotechnics,” and that seems about right. Moving Kings revels in the play of language, mashing words together to generate a kind of electric charge. Depending on your stylistic preferences, a line like “Rubbleshouldered Route 1 rose into eyesquint and earpop” may seem terribly precious or perfectly acute. In either case, you can no doubt visualize the road Cohen lays before you. He also has a poet’s gift for metaphor. When Tammy, David’s opiate-abusing daughter, enters a rehab facility in the woods upstate, Cohen notes that the surrounding landscape is full of “needle trees dulled with snow.” It’s as if the pines themselves have become symbols of addiction. Here, Cohen forages successfully, plucking the perfect descriptor out of its native environment.

He gets into trouble, though, when he strays from the terrain he knows best. Written in close third-person narration, Cohen’s novel is masterful at capturing the voices of the people who work for Moving Kings; when the focus shifts to the victims of eviction, the writing loses credibility. Imamu, a black Muslim and Vietnam vet, is slated to be thrown out of his Queens home. Cohen invites us to see the world through his eyes:

He especially hated how when the snow got sooty, when it got all tinted with the car pollutions, the whitefolks said and even the blackfolks said, that snow be dirty, yo. Because the snow wasn’t dirty. The folks be wrong, yo, and that might’ve been the only thing all the folks have ever had in common, their wrongness.

It’s not just that the writer’s use of slang feels contrived (“that snow be dirty, yo”) but that the ideas expressed ring false. Cohen delves deeper into Imamu’s views on race: “White is evil and black is natural and good, just remember outerspace, and how outerspace is black, the universe is black, and black is peace because it’s the absence of color.” Are we to believe Imamu would espouse such a simplistic worldview? Though Cohen refers to him as “a man of many beliefs,” his sketch is rather reductive. In the pages we spend with the former Lincoln Tunnel toll collector, he lacks what Claudia Rankine calls the “authentic fullness of experience.” Whereas the Jewish characters are shown to be multifaceted beings with complex emotions and ideas, Imamu appears artificial, a prop.

This is particularly apparent when Yoav, Uri and the rest of David’s crew enter Imamu’s trash-filled home. They initially think it’s abandoned, until—spoiler alert—they notice something on the other side of the room: “A syringe, crooked into the vitals of an elbow, fell out.” After checking to make sure he’s not dead, the two Israelis lug the drugged-out Imamu downstairs and leave him “lying in the scant shelter of a loadingdock.” By rendering him unconscious, does Cohen heighten our sympathy for Imamu, or just silence him? In a sense, the character’s fate is sealed before it begins: because the author fails to bring him to life, he never stands a chance.

Moving Kings is a bold novel that succeeds in many ways. It has brilliant things to say about America and Israel, war and peace, diaspora and home. But it can’t convince us that the person at the center of its eviction narrative is real. Making a character live and breathe on the page tests a writer’s imaginative capabilities, but it’s also about investing in the humanity of the subject. Moving Kings could have engaged more deeply with its evictee, rather than dragging him away.

Ben Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems appear or are forthcoming in the New Yorker, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. An editor at Guernica, he is the founder of Back Draft, an interview series focused on poetry and revision. He currently teaches creative writing at Rutgers. More from this author →