CAPE MAY - The New York Times compared Joshua Cohen to Thomas Pynchon. A Sunday books-section review of Cohen's fifth and latest book, "Witz," ended by calling the novel a "linguistic extravaganza ... a brave and artful attempt to explore and explode the limits of the sentence."
And the high-brow New York Observer threw in a few more complimentary comparisons in a Cohen profile, saying of his new novel that, "like any epic, it defies summary and overflows with puns, allusions, digressions, authorial sleights of hand and structural gags - in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce ... (and) Jonathan Swift."
Not bad bookish company for a kid who grew up in Linwood and Cape May, went to the old Trocki Hebrew Academy in Margate and then to Mainland Regional High School, and who worked some summers at his uncle's docks across the bay from Cape May - when he wasn't being a slot cashier at a few Atlantic City casinos or a semi-professional guitar player at gigs around Ocean City, Ventnor and more local spots.
Cohen is 29 and lives in Brooklyn now, but he was back in Cape May last weekend to visit his family, including his father, Barry, a lawyer with an office in Northfield, and mother, Ronnie. Josh's uncle, Dan Cohen, owns Atlantic Cape Fisheries in Lower Township.
"Witz" - the author pronounces his title with a V and says the word translates into "joke" in Yiddish and German - is truly epic in its length, at 817 pages in the edition released in May by Dalkey Archive Press, a literary publishing house based in Champaign, Ill., and London.
And one of the central stories in Cohen's brick-thick block of printed pages looks at the last Jew left on Earth, after a Biblical-style plague helps kill off all the others, except for first-born males in families.
(It happens that Josh Cohen is a first-born male - he has a younger brother, Noah, and a sister, Talia.)
Still, even after those fortunate sons are adopted by powerful and shadowy forces in America, the Jews are soon down to just one survivor, who becomes an unlikely international superstar - and who thus inspires waves of slavish imitation of all things Jewish. Only as it turns out, this last Jew isn't a particularly devout one, so the masses who idolize him become much more zealous than he is, then turn on their hero and hunt him down.
Cohen's admiring reviewers unfailingly note he managed to write this whole Jewish-centric tale - and others, including his imagined, not-too-distant-future end of the life of the last Jewish survivor of Hitler's Holocaust - without ever mentioning the word "Jew" or "Jewish," or any variation thereof.
He pulls off that trick in fiction by referring to his tribe as "The Affiliated," but in his real life, Cohen has hardly shied away from Jewish culture. He spent five years writing for the Forward, the international Jewish newspaper -whose past writers have included Nobel Prize winners Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel. Cohen also wrote for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, or "the AP of Jewish newspapers," as he puts it.
He covered eastern Europe for the Forward from 2001 to 2005, a job that involved so many Holocaust-related stories, he joked with his boss his title should be "dead Jews correspondent." His last year at the newspaper, he became the chief book critic and moved back to New York, where he had gone to college, majoring in composing at the Manhattan School of Music. He left the Forward in 2006 but stayed in New York and has since reviewed books for Harper's magazines, among other journalism work, along with writing his own books.
Elaine Geller, who taught Cohen English in his junior-high-school days at Trocki Hebrew Academy, has followed his career closely - and even visited Prague shortly after Cohen left his European base there. She says she met some fans he left behind there, and she's not at all surprised by his literary success.
"Josh was always creative, and always way out there," she says. "He's a sweet, sweet guy with a wonderful sense of humor."
In a rambling interview on a hot day in Cape May, Cohen led a sort of portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-younger-man tour of the town and answered dozens of questions about his past and present with a flow of words that made it clear why it wasn't such a struggle for him to produce an 817-page book.
In fact, he figures he originally wrote 1.5 to 2 million words for "Witz," over nine years, in several countries. He even likes to do some of his writing - starting in longhand, not a laptop - in the winter in Cape May, when his family and most of the summer crowds are back at their regular homes and lives.
"I believe that writing occurs in the editing," Cohen says, with no irony intended - even though he also clearly doesn't mind going for laughs in life, or in literature.
He notes his book before "Witz," titled "A Heaven of Others," was just 150 pages, and he expects his next book to be closer to 120 or so. But even a half-"Witz" would be more than 400 pages - which is longer than the standard full-length book these days.
In spite of all his wit, and his "Witz," Cohen says he has always felt part of a "culture of loss" - which may be partly informed by both his major journalism beats, the Holocaust and the beleaguered book business.
He obviously isn't the only person who realizes the people who managed to survive Hitler can't survive eternity, and "my generation is the last one that will know the survivors."
But this young writer worries too about the future of books, and that his own generation appears to be getting away from them. He has this deep "feeling that literature is very important to me - is necessary to me - and it isn't to a lot of my peers." And he says for almost any book published today, "Its secret subject is the future of the book as a medium, as a form. ... The heart of ("Witz") is that I'm writing the book at the end of books."
He feels fortunate to have gotten some publicity for his big, indescribable, uncategorizable novel - "For an 820-page book in the dying days of book reviews, I'm satisfied" - and on this day in Cape May, he was expecting to hear from interviewers from England for the release of the book there.
Still, he's scornful of the publishing industry's approach to promoting its products with a movie-like emphasis on "big opening weekends, big opening weeks" and opening months - "which is utterly antithetical to the position of the book in our culture," Cohen complains, meaning books used to be, should be, permanent.
He also detests gimmicks in which "writers have to prostitute themselves, with fictional characters starting (actual) blogs" to promote books to an audience used to doing its reading in short bites online.
"Facebook seems desperate to me," says this prime member of the Facebook generation.
And instead of going for a Jewish reference, the former eastern-Europe resident turns to the Catholic church - and a German pope he saw (from fairly close range) as an old-time hard-liner - to offer a solution to the future of literature.
"I believe the pope's approach to Catholicism should be the novelist's approach to the novel," Cohen says, with more than a hint of a grin. "I want to be the (Joseph) Ratzinger of the novel. We don't need the secularists - we need the true believers. ... I want to be head of the novel Inquisition."
But as for his less imaginary, more immediate future, Cohen is still writing, of course, both his books and his reviews of others.
"And I'm working on my girlfriend," he jokes, "which is a full-time job."
Plus this serious young artist and cultural critic is also having fun fooling around in a rock band. It's so new, it doesn't even have a name yet, but he has one sure plan for the band.
"We are going to make," he promises, "a lot of noise."
If his early reviews hold up - and books do too - Joshua Cohen may not even need his guitar to do that.
Contact Martin DeAngelis: