Dr Benzion Netanyahu’s reputation precedes him. ‘A true genius, who also happens to be a major statesman and political hero,’ writes one former colleague in a letter of recommendation. Unhelpfully, another letter follows where a different former colleague describes him as a ‘prolific rabble-rouser’, with ‘a history of inciting terrorist violence’.
These letters land in the pigeonhole of Ruben Blum, a historian at sleepy Corbin College in upstate New York. Ruben, the first and only Jew on the faculty (it’s 1959), is to interview Netanyahu for a position. Netanyahu is a revisionist Zionist; Ruben has carved a quiet patch in taxation studies. ‘We feel like you’re in a unique position to judge,’ Ruben is told: ‘This man is one of your own,’ Ruben, who long ago jettisoned his Jewish identity, his ‘useless past’, isn’t so sure.
Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus is a campus novel that swerves between stern lecture and clownish humour. Netanyahu is often the source of both. He arrives in a battered car that puffs smoke and spills out his uninvited family — ‘not clowns in full bozo regalia honking horns and juggling plates, but close enough’. They proceed to lay waste to the Blums’ quiet American life.
Cohen is at his best with chaotic, everyone-shouting-at-once set pieces. There are disastrous family meals and giving of gifts — many-voiced, arms waving and fingers poking. ‘A large house, a large consanguineous cast all massed in the same small room: was this theatre or Judaism?’ Of course Jewishness is at the heart of these disputations. Indeed, the most wincingly felt of these involves Ruben’s daughter engineering a homemade nose reduction.
The Netanyahus, like Cohen’s previous novels, is driven by the momentum of its prose. It has a freewheeling, all-consuming style which frequently turns up unexpected delights. There are nicely odd verbs: ‘A car came chunking down Evergreen’; Ruben’s father-in-law ‘bellied onto the carpet-runner’ to examine a faulty socket. There are vivid similes, as when we find Ruben’s mother-in-law manically unpacking a soiled suitcase — ‘pulling out clothes from it like she was pulling out tissues from a box to staunch a cry of mourning’.
Slowing things down are a series of lectures on Zionism. Dour and rambling, they interrupt the narrative, much as Netanyahu darkens the door of Blum. This is intentionally wearisome, but wearisome nonetheless. Fortunately, this is a surprising novel, full of quirks and explosive moments, and, all in all, Dr Netanyahu proves a welcome guest.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10