DEEDS embodies in full several themes I often find weaving themselves through my novels: how the dynamics of family life shape identity and how one generation often unconsciously imprints itself on the next, with the dreams and sins of parents emerging in new forms in their children and the children who come after. Those elements are embodied in the lives of DEEDS’ major protagonists, the third generation of two intertwined families. Ralph Behr, is a charismatic and visionary real estate developer ambitious to build the world’s tallest buildings. Gail Benedict, fiercely moral and independent, detests what she assumes she knows about Ralph. Because of secrets buried in their fathers’ lives, they must enter into a sham marriage that forces them together for the two years that must pass until their divorce will raise no suspicions.
The setting is New York City’s vibrant but risky high-rise real estate industry and the huge project Ralph Behr is building: three 150-story skyscrapers surrounding an elevated, domed platform containing department stores, restaurants, and shops. But the aspirations of many other men and women are linked to it as well: envious developers, construction workers, architects, engineers, bankers, politicians, publicists, even community activists with a stake in what is built in their neighborhoods. Inevitably, Gail and her artist friends who will be displaced by the project heatedly oppose Ralph. Among those who hate Ralph and resent the millionaire’s new wife is her ex-husband, among the few allowed to know the reason for the divorce. That is only one of several secrets from the past that emerge to cause family conflict among some of the novel’s characters and unexpected amity among others.
DEEDS is also the story of two earlier generations of the Behr family and the secrets they thought were buried with them. In the early years of the 20th century, Raphael Behar, a well-educated young Jew hoping to become an architect, emigrates to America from his home in a part of Turkey that is now in northern Greece. The book follows his struggles to gain success and the love of a dazzlingly beautiful woman, Sally Robbins (born Sima Rabinowitz), a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine who has found material success while hiding her roots. Being myself a descendant of immigrants from those homelands, I derived enormous pleasure in exploring their transplanted life in the tenements and shops of New York’s Lower East Side and Jewish Harlem, where my own family settled. Sadly, Sally’s (or Sima’s) tale of having survived the slaughtering of her family by drunken Cossacks who raided her Jewish village is true. In real life a different teenage girl named Sima survived the massacre by hiding in a cupboard. She was my grandmother.
As a writer I’m fascinated by the ways in which the desires, ambitions, and personality traits unique to one generations’ characters and their eras become manifested in unexpected ways in ensuing generations. The second generation of the Behr family grow into adults during the Great Depression and suffer its hardships and those of the War years. That allowed me to delve into what Henry Behr and his sister had to do to survive before they could thrive and to plant the dark secrets that will someday haunt Ralph and Gail.
But DEEDS is also the story of Gail’s family, which settled in New York around the same time as Raphael and Sima, and how the destiny of the two families braid together over the generations, fate made visible only after the passage of many years. Each of the Behr men, for example, finds himself overcome by an irresistible, almost genetic impulse—some might say misfortune—to fall utterly in love with and pursue an ethereally beautiful, nearly unattainable woman—and their families, too, intertwine with the Behrs.
Because the book stands on the bedrock of my family background, although Ralph and Gail’s story is not my own, its themes and characters resonate personally for me. I found myself slipping in small pieces of my own history. My father came to America as a boy with his father. Although he said that their first day in America and their reunion with Nissim, his roguish uncle, who appears in the book, was not quite as I depicted Raphael’s, he understood the transformations necessary to create a better story.
In a small way this updated version of DEEDS honors my father. When Ralph wanders through Saratoga’s Museum of Racing during a charity event, he comes upon the exhibit for the 1951 Kentucky Derby winner, Count Turf. The colt’s owner was my father, who believed both in his horse and the jockey, although no one else did. When Count Turf galloped to an easy four-length victory, my father achieved his personal American dream and became a part of the history of a sport he loved. Years later, on a different Derby day, ESPN paid tribute to him and Count Turf in a piece about them and their victory. The narrator was the legendary sportscaster Jack Whittaker, who recalled that his interest in horse racing was initiated by reading the newspaper report of the race. He called it “the essential Kentucky Derby story.”
Thinking as I am about the effects and ironies of a family’s past that materialize in its future, I’m reminded of an incident in my own life. In our family’s tradition, my son is named after his grandfather. When he was eight years old, I informed him that I had decided to become a full-time writer. Worriedly and very practically, he proceeded to interrogate me as to whether I could support our family pursuing that precarious profession. Ironically, he grew up to be a writer, in his case of movies and TV shows. I hope I’m around long enough to see enough of the life journeys of his and my daughter’s children to satisfy my curiosity as to how their lives will evolve. And I certainly hope that my wife, to whom the book is lovingly dedicated, is by my side.
For the launch of A QUESTION OF PROOF, I drew on my film-making experience to create a video book trailer, which aims to capture the essence of the book's drama. It is available here and on YouTube and my website JosephAmiel.com.