Glimpses of humanity

Joshua Cohen’s latest work features an American Jew who doesn’t fit in and two Israelis struggling to move on from the Gaza war.

Sea at sunset (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sea at sunset
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Novelist Joshua Cohen seems to be extremely disturbed by the world’s unhappiness; and his own.
Cohen sounds strained and elusive in interviews; hesitant it seems to discuss what really upsets him.
He admits to a love of science fiction and music and an occasional drink and cigarette.
At only 37, this prolific author of several books including the acclaimed The Book of Numbers, which examined how we are faring in the age of the Internet, was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Atlantic City has always been a corrupt and transient town, and it seems to have left its mark on Cohen, whose view of the world is tinged with darkness. He confesses to reading incessantly, often at night, after which he tumbles into his bed alone. He has made vague comments regarding the impossibility inherent in all relationships which eventually disappoint us. That includes family, friends and lovers.
When once asked what his greatest wish was, he replied without hesitation that he wished he could have met and spent time with Saul Bellow, believing the author had something essential to teach him.
He is particularly sensitive to the plight of Jewish reality in all of its permutations.
Cohen writes like a wild man on amphetamines, using a narrative style that is like no other. He ignores grammar and punctuation and makes up compound words when he chooses to. He feels no compulsion to adhere to any sort of traditional story line and instead focuses his powers on creating unforgettable glimpses of humanity that move us in ways we don’t expect.
His characters’ heads are often crammed with the chaotic chatter of unhappy people struggling for some sort of salvation in a world that continually haunts them. We recognize pieces of ourselves in his dead-on characterizations.
Because underneath all of his pyrotechnics, we sense the presence of an author who understands something essential about the human condition. He simply won’t allow us to look away.
IN HIS new novel, Moving Kings, we meet David King, a painfully self-conscious Jewish man who is divorced and struggling with an adult daughter who barely tolerates him. He is not prone to introspection, but consumed by his moving business which requires constant vigilance.
Not even Ruth, his office manager and sometimes lover, can really reach him.
King is a proud Republican and has been invited to a ritzy party in the Hamptons which he attends in the hope of drumming up some new business, but finds himself stymied by the crowd, an elite and self-entitled bunch of pompous gentiles talking about things he knows nothing about. He tries to fake his way through it, but watches as each person quickly terminates their conversations with him and moves on to someone else.
He finally turns to the hired help who are equally rejecting, and King finds himself the lone Jew amid a hostile and snubbing crowd.
“It was work having to restrain himself from mentioning mergers he’d only read about, acquisitions that weren’t his, a celebrity stranger’s divorce/custody negotiations still ongoing – having to endure discussion of clean ocean and beach replenishment initiatives, when all he wanted to know was: daughter or wife? when all he wanted to know was: does anyone know where our host is? It was work pretending he blended, he mixed, pretending he wasn’t sweating and had a second residence of his own and was a Hamptons vet and agreeing yes hasn’t the Meadow Lane heliport gotten so crowded lately? and yes isn’t Ray from Elite Landscapers just the best? “The fact remained that David had never been this far out on the island before and not only couldn’t he tell you which of the Hamptons he was in, he couldn’t even tell you the number of Hamptons, or the difference between the Hamptons, or what made a Hampton a Hampton, singular, to begin with?” Cohen shows us King being repeatedly ostracized by a gentile crowd that will never allow him genuine access. The saddest part is that he no longer registers his own submission to their intolerance. He simply accepts his second-class status; it is second nature to him by now.
“It was distressing to others, but not to himself, who didn’t notice – how he’d change. How he’d let himself be lectured, talked down to. How he’d become, in certain situations, not servile exactly, but docile, tamed. A Jew. And so he’d always wind up thanking his interlocutor for the condescension, for the aeronautical, nautical, equestrian, or civic education. Just like after he’d shout at Ruth, he’d apologize and give her a raise, just like he’d always over-tip his servers – even tipping them at an event like this, where accepting gratuities would get him in trouble.”
King remains focused on his own survival; an instinct he probably inherited from his now deceased father who miraculously escaped Auschwitz and then reinvented himself as Jay King of Manhattan where he started a trucking company before David was even born.
DAVID, LIKE his father before him, spent almost all of his time working, and when he suddenly suffers a mild heart attack, something strange happens. Some dormant piece of tenderness floats up to his consciousness prompting him to allow his distant Israeli cousin Yoav, and his best friend Uri, to come to work for him now that they have finished their service in the IDF. Both boys have been traumatized by their experiences fighting in the Gaza war and are looking to leave Israel for a while in order to regain their balance.
King rarely made a gesture like this; it was unusual for him, but somehow allowing his Israeli relative come work for him felt essential to his own healing. He acted quickly on his instincts. Shortly after making this decision, we lose sight of King; Cohen has moved on, leaving him in some nether land to fester while he places his piercing gaze on Yoav and Uri and their individual struggles.
The two ex-soldiers are going to be working as eviction movers in the roughand- tumble boroughs of New York, repossessing homes where homeowners have defaulted on their mortgages and are being thrown to the streets. The work is difficult and reminds them in some ways of their army service. Uri, who saved Yoav’s life during their army tenure, seems lost already to a pervasive darkness that threatens to be irreversible.
But Yoav is fighting for his own psychological survival. He has stopped answering emails from his army buddies who are scattered across the globe, also looking for some sort of respite. He is even keeping his distance from Uri who reminds him of episodes he would rather forget. Most importantly, he has embarked on a journey toward his own self-definition that will allow him to eradicate the groupthink of his army years.
Cohen describes Yoav’s initial burst of rebellious thinking: “He was realizing that he’d never liked beer, he liked rum. He still wasn’t sure about cigs, though, which meant he was addicted. Flossing didn’t make him a fag.
From now on he’d wear boxers, not even boxer-briefs, and briefs never again. His socks wouldn’t be the tall tubes anymore but the shorties. He’d turn to reading, and didn’t care that Gad, who read English, but swore Hemingway was better in Hebrew, and Kosta, who only read articles glamorizing the Shabbak and Mossad, wouldn’t heaved him into the latrines for the sites he now perused – sites on Israeli history, the reconstruction of Salah al-Din Road, and FAQs about how to be an actor.
He kept the TV tuned to topical series and serious cinema and drew his own conclusions: his taste could be improved.”
But just as we are relishing Yoav’s newfound realizations, he vanishes too, and Cohen is chasing after someone else.
Cohen’s writing feels like a force of nature; it is utterly original and arresting. He is unafraid to explore the darkest impulses of the human experience; and sheds light on the moral compromises we make, as well as the moral judgments we cling to even when faced with evidence to the contrary. His book becomes a moving blur of exquisitely etched images of messy and flawed humanity that race by us seemingly unaware of our presence. Cohen allows his characters to drop in and out of his narrative almost as if he is afraid to stay too long with any of them. But we are not afraid to remain with him.