MARGATE, N.J. — Is Joshua Cohen the biggest intellect ever to emerge from a Jersey Shore childhood?
“I mean, who else is there?” Cohen, 41, said. We’re kidding, sort of, but he’s got a point.
Growing up in the shadow of casinos, lifeguard races, strip clubs, Donald Trump, Boardwalk kitsch, and corrupt mayors does not necessarily put you on a fast track for a career of intellectual rigor and high-minded fiction writing, though it did give Cohen some experience as a coin cashier in a casino. (He wrote about that in a July 2016 essay in N+1 magazine in which he presciently makes the case that Trump will never admit to losing an election.)
Still, it happened. With an intoxicating writing style that goes for the deepest of dives but also for laughs, Cohen went on to write many books, including the acclaimed Book of Numbers (2015) and Moving Kings (2017), and to take his place among the most celebrated of Jewish writers in America. In April, Cohen won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his latest novel, “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family.”
The book is a fictional retelling of the time Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Benjamin, the former Israeli prime minister, visited Cornell University, his rambunctious family in tow, and his encounter with a secular Jewish academic modeled after the scholar Harold Bloom.
The Netanyahus have local roots: Benjamin went to school in Cheltenham, his father got a Ph.D. from the old Dropsie College on North Broad Street. Cohen, who now lives in New York City, was in Israel when the Pulitzers were announced, staying three blocks from where Benjamin Netanyahu was on trial for corruption. He said there was great curiosity among Israelis that such a book was being celebrated in America.
“‘Is this an official American opinion?’ They were suspicious of that,” Cohen said. “‘Why was this book chosen?’ There was considerable interest in the American side of the Netanyahu story because it’s not been told in Israel.
“The idea of the Jew alienated in diaspora is something that Israel thinks it has dealt with through the culture of its statehood,” he said. “For them, this was an interesting encounter with something they usually avoid.”
Lightly edited, and with some questions inserted for clarity, here are excerpts of our conversation about Cohen’s childhood at the Shore (”I hated it down there,”) and about The Netanyahus.
Some sort of error made
You don’t write directly about the Shore. Does the Shore appear in other ways?
In the Book of Numbers, the mother lives in a place I think is very much Absecon Island. The Shore is in everything that I do. I think there are elements of anything from speech to landscape that have made their ways into what I do.
(I ask about his high school years. He attended several schools. It’s a time he doesn’t like to rehash.)
I hated it down there. It’s an island, it doesn’t have a good bookstore. It’s a place for entertainment, and not for culture. It has absolutely nothing to nourish the soul or spiritual life. It taught me very young that the world hated me and hated everything I believed in.
I do think there was absolutely a sense of, it was as if there was some sort of error made in where I was born and where I lived. And that my task in life was to deal with their error not by denying it, by rising above It.
You attended the old Hebrew Academy in Margate, run by Orthodox educators from Lakewood. What was that like?
I actually think the education I got there was in a way what saved me. One thing about belief is that it’s rigorous. Nothing else down there was really rigorous. It’s difficult to be disciplined with yourself when you’re next to a beach. The beach and ocean are really this constant moral lesson, this beautiful border of containment that hems in this human trash. Nature exists and doesn’t care about us.
You worked in the casinos.
In Resorts as a coin cashier. I worked as a musician in different casinos, Trump Plaza, putting on my cheap tux and driving in and parking in the parking garage, taking the jitney, working a shift, coming out having touched money for eight hours and my hands were just caked with filth. I think it teaches you a lot.
I had to make a secret of my passions there and that was humiliating.
How did your family decide to settle in such a place?
My family was resettled in South Jersey, they were all refugees who were resettled in the Alliance community outside of Vineland and were made chicken farmers. Coming to the Shore from chicken country was a step up.
You’ve compared the cacophonous arrival of the Netanyahus in your book to the arrival of Trump onto the national political scene.
It follows a character who is a liberal who believes himself to be an American assimilated liberal who takes all comers. The arrival of the Netanyahu family recalls him to his roots and he begins questioning for the first time who he’s become, what are the costs of his becoming, what are the costs of his forced change.
You write of your characters: “Disdain was their brand of piety.” Is that kind of obsessively disagreeable personality a particularly Jewish thing? It certainly felt quite familiar.
“I tend to understand [Judaism] as maybe the commandments to say no, that one must disagree, that one must dissent.. The idea of Judaism existing as a reactionary standpoint, I absolutely was brought up in that tradition.
At the same time, to survive growing up down the Shore, you have to be good at saying no. Everything is designed to part you from your money, and part you from your life. I think I owe my continued existence to my ability to constantly say no. I do it with a degree of true piety.
Any thoughts about the current state of Israel, or its Bibi Netanyahu era?
To interrogate Israel existentially is I think beside the point. When I think about Israel, I don’t think you can be a nation without weathering something like a Bibi threat, where a personality threatens to overturn the rule of law.
But we also understand from history that the rule of law can be immoral, and that the people voted in can be sources of true malice.
I believe the same thing could be said about all the former mayors of Atlantic City.
The former mayors?
They are the microcosms of the flip side of the cult of personality. They were all figures in whom people invested their hate and their mistrust. But really they were just scapegoats of the rottenness of the entire system. How many of them went to jail?
Do you really own Philip Roth’s writing chair?
I have Philip Roth’s chair. I did not buy it, it was given to me. I don’t use it at all. I sat in it one day. I got up at the end of that day, first time I ever had horrible back pain. This was the chair that Roth ruined his back on. I realized it wasn’t the beautiful gift that I thought it was.