Midway through his debut novel, “All About the Benjamins,” Atlanta writer Zev Good’s family patriarch Joel Benjamin makes the following observation: “Let’s just get through this, then everyone can go back to hating each other, and no one will have to speak to anyone else until Rosh Hashanah, and it’ll be OK.”
The scene: a memorial service for the family matriarch as multiple members of Joel’s family fume around him at the cemetery. The chapter is simultaneously ripe with drama, riotously funny and real. It’s also a vivid example of what makes Good’s writing so addictive and endearing.
We know these people — they’re either members of our family or worse, they’re us.
Joel is a recently widowed Atlanta college professor who, after 38 years of marriage, is in the process of coming out as a gay man to his adult children, including his gay son Adam, a Gen Xer who makes judgements on dates based on whether they proofread their text messages before hitting send. Joel’s daughter, Amy, is a neurotic hair stylist raising a teenage son Ethan, who donated his $20,000 bar mitzvah money to charity. Joel’s protective sister, Rhoda, is the relative who orders a pumpernickel bagel, lightly toasted with lox, one thin slice of the ripest tomato available with capers and very thinly sliced red onion on the side, who upon receipt of said high maintenance bagel, immediately begins gesturing to a server like an air traffic controller, to send her order back.
As we plunge ourselves headlong into yet another holiday season with our own relatives, the quirky and queer family at the center of “All About the Benjamins” serves as a poignant and hilarious reminder to us all about why we put ourselves through these familial rituals year after year. There’s reason the Benjamins bang back a lot of wine.
But Good’s own family needn’t worry about unearthing traces of themselves in the fictional Benjamin clan.
“Every one of these characters is sort of me,” Good concedes with a laugh. “For me, writing is almost like self-therapy. It’s like talking to yourself about yourself. Amy is the straight female version of me, complete with all my neuroses. My slacker self is Adam, Joel has my nebbishness and Rhoda and [family matriarch] Susan inherited my sarcasm and my mouth.”
For Good (who moonlights as Atlanta executive chef Patric Good), writing is the perfect way to wind down after a long day in the kitchen. He’s loved writing ever since he discovered “Peter Pan, “Mary Poppins” and “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” as a kid growing up in East Tennessee and Alabama. But writing took a back seat to his culinary career until he took a creative writing class at the Margaret Mitchell House in Midtown in 2003 (a revised version of a story he produced in the class ended up in “A Map of the World,” his 2017 collection of short stories). Blogging for the Atlanta-based website, Equally Wed, in the ramp up to his 2012 marriage to Darin Good (who is affectionately referred to by his writer husband with the “Bewitched”-inspired nickname “Derwood” in his Facebook posts).
In the two-and-a-half-years it took Zev Good to write “All About the Benjamins,” he was simultaneously teaching himself how to self-publish on Amazon, all the while lamenting the lack of quality gay fiction on the website (“Most of the books I encountered had a half-naked guy on the cover and many of them involved the fetishizing of gay men and were written by straight women. There’s not a lot of smart fiction out there for our community.”
As “All About the Benjamins” took shape, Good realized he was also writing for another vastly unrepresented demographic in fiction — Southern Jews. Says Good: “In popular culture, we see lots of New York Jews and lots of Florida Jews. Thanks to [the Amazon original series] ‘Transparent,’ we now have west coast Jews but we don’t see southern Jews. My family has been here since the 1700s, pre-Ellis Island, but I didn’t feel like we were represented. All of that helped to create the Benjamins.”
While the centrifugal force of “All About the Benjamins” is the unexpected reveal of the novel’s 58-year-old patriarch Joel’s long-simmering secret life as a gay man (and the fall out when his children discover he was unfaithful to their mother with men over three-plus decades), Good says he didn’t originally plot the novel that way. “Originally, Joel was going to come out to his children over dinner,” recalls Good. “But as I was writing, having Joel get busted just felt more fun to me. And as a writer, if it’s your gay son who walks in on you with another man, there’s a lot more to work with. I guess that’s my Real Housewives of Toco Hills dramatic sense. Creatively, it was a lot of fun to drop a bomb like that and see what happens.”
When it comes to being a student of human behavior, Good is on the dean’s list for life, too. Each character in “All About the Benjamins” feels simultaneously unique and like a member of your family. “I don’t take physical notes but I have a memory like an elephant,” says Good. “I remember everything, especially if something doesn’t really matter. It ends up trickling out when I write. If I see a guy walking through the mall with his kid, I find myself building an entire life story for someone I see wandering through Williams Sonoma.”
Of the characters in “All About the Benjamins,” Good says, “I want you to love them one minute and hate them the next. I wanted to sidestep the stereotypes. They needed to feel real. Like all of us, I can be really nice on a Friday but if I’m having a shitty day on Saturday, your opinion of me may completely change. With each character, it was about capturing those very human peaks and valleys and getting them on the page.”
As the book’s witty and wise narrator, Good doesn’t let his characters get away with stereotypical behavior without calling them on it either. Mid-novel, as Amy struggles with co-parenting a combative teenage son with her philandering ex-husband, she sighs, “I guess our little boy isn’t so little anymore.” Good’s next sentence? “She sounded like a mom in a mediocre sitcom that would probably get cancelled after three episodes.”
For Atlantans, Good grounds his fiction in a lot of metro area landmarks as well. Susan teaches her kids to drive in the parking lot of Perimeter Mall, Decatur High makes a cameo and characters accidentally run into each other at Victory Sandwich shop on the square in Decatur.
As a ride-or-die member of the Gen X generation, Zev Good wisely avoids hardwiring any messages into his novel, but he hopes to leave readers with this: “It’s OK to be who you are, always. It’s something I hope the book conveys to anyone who feels a little left of center who needs to hear it.”
Ultimately, in “All About the Benjamins,” Good says he wants to test the theory Tolstoy posits in the opening sentence of “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“Just like the Benjamins, my family’s history didn’t start with my hippie mom and redneck dad,” he says. “Their story began with their parents and all the way back to Switzerland and Hungary in the 1700s, and the relatives who decided to move to Alabama, of all places. Each family member’s actions colors everything that comes after.”
And if you’ve had too much exposure to your real family this holiday season, spending some quality time with Zev Good’s Benjamin family in his smart, funny, page-turner of a debut novel, might be the perfect holiday gift to yourself.
Cracks Good: “Hopefully, the Benjamins will make you feel better about your life and your family. There’s a reason Jews like to remind each other, ‘It could always be worse!”
Above author photographs by Matt Lane.