When you first start reading “All About the Benjamins” by Zev Good, you think it will be a heartfelt character study about the agony and joy of coming out later in life as a gay Jewish man after a lifetime spent burying one’s true self, a lifetime full of the little regrets for the petty, snippy comments you dealt out, even to your own gay son, to hide your real identity. This is the story, initially, of Joel Benjamin, an English literature professor reeling from the loss of his wife Susan to cancer, and his guilt over finally being able to live his formerly secret life out in the open now that she was gone.
Then as you peel back the layers, you start to realize this is not a story about one man; as the title would suggest, it is instead a family story, a gentle, authentic rendering of the grief of the Benjamins – Amy and Adam, Joel’s kids, as they come to understand what life is like without Susan in it, all of them left unmoored in the shocking absence of her stabilizing presence.
At times the pacing is bogged down by long, rambling passages of interior monologue, but that is also perfect for indie literary fiction; by the end of this book I was laughing and crying along with the Benjamins, rooting for them, feeling like I was having a glass of wine at the dinner table with them, griping, “She said what?” and blushing. If this were commercial fiction, I could see an agent asking for a full request because the writing voice is so strong and then demanding the author cut large portions of the interiority bits so that it would fit a commercial market’s whims. But then all the charm would be rubbed out of it, in the vain hope that the rights could one day be sold so that it could become a drab sitcom about a dysfunctional Jewish family who nonetheless loved each other.
In the end you realize that’s what this book is about, really. It’s not about being gay, or coming out, or being Jewish, or identity, even though all those things are an integral part of the plot, of who these characters are; but those aspects of their identity do not define them. This is a story about love and the ties that bind, about what brings families together in times of tragedy, about the Brady Bunch house to which we add a fresh coat of paint after 40 years of sameness and the secrets everyone knew but wouldn’t admit or the precious illusion would be shattered, and the flower garden that was always only an idea in the gardener’s mind but only ever became a reality after the would-be gardener was gone. At its heart, this is a story about a family, and the journey they go on to realize that all they have left is each other, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.