...a brilliant book whose brilliance comes via a bait and switch. It opens as a comic portrait of a midlife crisis, but concludes as a somber cautionary tale frothing with cataclysms, including fire and gunplay ... It comes on as unassuming yet stylish, but circles around tricky questions of occupation and power in the U.S. and Israel. And yet none of it feels messy or overreaching — indeed, it feels master-planned to slowly unsettle your convictions, as the best novels do ... Cohen has a brain-on-fire intellect and a Balzac-grade enthusiasm for understanding varieties of experience, which encourages the reader to stick with his provocations ... Americans and Israelis may not be engaged in the same conflict, but they share a similar challenge in solving complicated questions of faith, race and the law. Cohen’s book is a comic and harrowing study of the consequences of ignoring them.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Granta recently named Cohen one of the best young American novelists, and his new book, Moving Kings, is a svelte comic triumph that concentrates his genius ... The clash of expectations between a rough American businessman and an Israeli innocent abroad provides the basis for some smart comedy, and Cohen is particular adept with moments of silly absurdity ... As subtly as water seeps into sand, the comedy drains from this story, and we’re left in the stark moral desert where Yoav is stranded.
David Foster Wallace, one of Cohen’s conspicuous influences, lived and wrote in terror of solipsism, though no matter how hard he strove to imagine characters unlike himself (and he had huge range), you always saw Wallace, almost his actual face, through the unmistakable style. This struggle gave him pathos. By contrast, Cohen’s stance seems to be deliberately against any idea of 'likability.' Almost everyone in his book is loathsome, though in a facile way that says as much about the portrayer as the portrayed ... it’s a relief when we finally get to the story of the Israelis, Yoav and Uri, wherein the novel leaves off with its reflexive contempt and shows an almost human heart ... Jews evicting blacks, Israeli Jews evicting African-American Muslims, veterans evicting veterans: I see this schematic, but Cohen’s book has no capacity for real outrage, sorrow or grief. In this way, like its antihero David, it’s a victim of its own safe distance.
Moving Kings struggles with form, but this may represent a conscious effort on the author’s part at self-contraception. It is relatively brief, accessible, and more or less conventionally structured; it is highly intelligent but not a novel of ideas, and though its prose does plenty of swaggering, the swagger belongs to the characters—which is to say, most of the novel is written in close third-person or free indirect style, the grammar of everyday contemporary realism. It’s the right style for this novel’s world, which is burly with particularities and vibrant with voice. The atmosphere at times resembles a Jewish Sopranos, minus the violence—men, family, moneymaking, muscle ... The labor might be similar, but the job certainly isn’t. The reader feels this frailty inscribed into the very form of the novel. The urgency of the descriptions of Israeli combat repeatedly calls out to the weaker urgency of the descriptions of American 'combat'—overshadowing them with their higher stakes, and repeatedly summoning the novelist back to Israel and away from more mundane New York ... This is a book of brilliant sentences, brilliant paragraphs, brilliant chapters. Here things flare singly, a succession of lighted matches, and do not cast a more general illumination.
Though written with all the swagger, dazzle, and gonzo humor we’ve come to expect from Cohen, Moving Kings is a focused, efficient novel about the idea of home and its absence, about what it means to be unhomed and what it might feel like to unhome others in turn ... Moving Kings has a tighter thematic coherence than some of Cohen’s previous novels, announcing itself as a novel about identity and the violent exiling of people from their homes. It’s also a more conventional beast...Still, Moving Kings displays much of the magic of all Cohen’s fiction, its savagery of vision and above all its deep commitment to the sentence as a unit of meaning ... Sometimes Cohen begins a paragraph as though embarking on a difficult and potentially dangerous journey, so that you read on not necessarily because you want to know what happens next but because you want to know what the sentences will do.
There are two halves to this novel. The first is a superbly drawn portrait of King, a man raised in a cramped Queens apartment where his parents argued 'in the Yiddish of banged cabinets' who went on to make a fortune at the cost of his soul. Bluff, funny, amoral and likably scrappy—he brings the dented company van to glitzy fundraisers—King seems both archetypal and vividly sui generis. But the book’s second half drops him in order to enact a creaky allegory of Israeli occupation. Yoav and Uri unwittingly reprise their mission in Gaza by helping to dispossess poor evictees ... The idea is that the cycle of violence that afflicts Israel is analogous to the predatory practices of urban capitalism. This is, to put it mildly, a tricky parallel, and Mr. Cohen’s parable-like tale is too sketchy to make it persuasive.
...though the characters may not be particularly erudite, Cohen's writing is filled with sharp turns of phrase and elegant rhythms ... Cohen's cadence is inflected with Hebrew, a language that David defines as 'the speech of the beleaguered, the last exasperation before a spanking.' And a spanking is coming for David and his family ... The denouement is as vengeful as any Old Testament plot twist.
Cohen has taken an interesting risk in Moving Kings. With its pivoting point of view, the book lacks anything in the way of a singular protagonist. David, Yoav, Uri and Imamu all seem to share equal billing, raising the question of whose story is being told. And though the novelty of the approach is exciting, the end result misses the mark. Cohen’s close third-person prose is textured and authoritative (if a touch patronizing at times), and it provides a unifying force for all its moving parts. But there’s a regrettable diffusion of energy at the denouement — energy Cohen has meticulously accumulated — with some of the primary characters either absent at the moment of crisis or obscured and witnessed from a distance ... Moving Kings gets close to troubling issues but has too much restless energy driving it to stay put and hold focus when it really needs to.
Cohen shows an impressive knowledge of life in the cab of a moving van and in the ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces. He touches on two wars and two combat zones (counting brief allusions to Afghanistan). He is funny and caustic and has a marvelous snap in his dialogue. For a writer whose last two novels total some 1,400 pages, Cohen has slimmed down here but still covers a lot of territory.
...[a] striking, erratic novel ... The prose achieves a wild brilliance but cannot sustain it, focusing too little on what feels like the beating heart of the story. There are, however, admirable risks to be found on most every page, resulting in an ambitious and thought-provoking read.