Mon, Aug 20, 2012
In a time when the Cyclone was too young to have stories to tell, when carnival freaks and Mafia bookies were ordinary neighbors, and decades before an annual hot-dog-eating contest at Nathan’s, there was Amram Ducovny’s Coney Island.
Amram “Ami” Ducovny, who passed away in 2003, took his boyhood experiences and packaged them into a dark, mature, detailed account of life as the son of Jewish immigrants in the pre-World War II era of Coney Island. First published to critical praise in 2000, Ducovny’s novel, Coney, which he wrote at age 73, is now being released as an e-book by The Overlook Press.
“This richly drawn portrait of 15-year-old Harry Catzker… offers a welcome twist on the coming-of-age novel” Dana Kennedy wrote in a New York Times review of the book when it debuted. “Coney is also a noirish thriller and a darkly comic and moving glimpse into the lives of Jewish immigrants in the 1930′s.”
The arts were always very much a part of the Ducovny’s life. His father, Moshe, was a noted Yiddish writer and journalist, and his mother, Julia, was an immigrant from Poland. Moshe Duchovny, who came to American in 1918 from what is now Ukraine, wrote for the Morning Journal.
When Ducovny was young, he spent time at The Café Royal, which was a gathering place for Yiddish theatre performers, writers, and producers. Years later in 1967, he had a play produced briefly on Broadway titled The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, but at the time, not long after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it was not well-received.
Ducovny was a writer at heart and had 10 nonfiction books published before he wrote Coney, but he made his living working in public relations. When Ducovny was growing up, creativity was more important than money, and that outlook stayed with him throughout his life. The author’s daughter, Laurie Duchovny, a Brooklyn-based teacher, admired her father’s determination.
“What I loved most about him is that he kept doing what he loved,” said Laurie Duchovny. “He kept at it. He was always writing.”
During his time in the Army, Ducovny dropped the “h” from the original spelling of “Duchovny” because of continued mispronunciation. The writer has three children, Laurie being the youngest. His middle child, David Duchovny, is a well-known actor. The eldest son, Daniel, who works as a director in Los Angeles, uses the same spelling of his last name as his father.
When the children were growing up, their father would take them to Coney Island. Daniel recalls that the area is not what it is today.
“When Dave and I were younger, we used to go on the weekends and we’d go-kart,” said Daniel. “We used to play Ski Ball. [Our father was] unbelievable at all those games because he used to work there.”
Laurie remembers her father telling stories from his childhood at Coney Island of watching people burn down their businesses at the end of the summer season to collect insurance money. One fond memory that Laurie holds dear is the nightly ritual that her father would perform for her.
“He sang me, every night, a song by Louis Prima called ‘Robin Hood,’” she said. “And that’s what I sing to my two kids.”
She recalls her father being loved by those who knew him, and he was equally as interested in knowing other people as they may have been with him.
“He was not at all judgmental,” said Laurie Duchovny. “He was just interested in people. He loved going to museums and he always had his little black book, where he would write notes down. He was very engaged with the world, but always shy.”
Ami Ducovny very much identified with his childhood in Coney Island, and his family life growing up is mirrored in the writing of Coney. Although he attended a small yeshiva as a child, then a public high school, Ducovny didn’t want a bar mitzvah ceremony. He was culturally very Jewish, spoke fluent Hebrew and understood Yiddish as his elders spoke it to him as a child, but Ducovny himself was not a believer.
“My father’s family was very unconventional,” said Laurie. “It doesn’t seem unconventional to me, but looking through the lens of the typical Jewish family in the 1940s in Brooklyn, yeah they’d be bohemian, unconventional for sure.”
Varda Ducovny, 84, the author’s second wife and widow, remembers the day the two married and how it very much reflected his character.
“I was sleeping and Ami had a friend who was a rabbi who was allowed to marry,” said Varda Ducovny during an interview in the Boston apartment of her son, Jonathan Sahula. “He came in and he said, ‘Honey, you better get up, the rabbi is here.’ And I throw on God knows what. The guy married us and then I went to go pick up my son from school.”
Varda said Ami supported their first year of marriage by playing poker. She said she wasn’t surprised when he wrote his first novel after retiring. Writing a novel was something Ducovny always wanted to do, Varda said, but because he had a family to support it wasn’t realistic. Ducovny wrote a lot for work and as a hobby, but his wife didn’t always know what he was working on.
“He was always at the typewriter writing something,” she said. “He didn’t talk very much about what he was doing. It was so much a part of the fabric of our lives that it didn’t need to be talked about.”
Andrew Blauner, who has been the book agent for Coney since its beginning, found Ducovny’s circumstance unique.
“What was special about Ami’s situation,” said Blauner, “Coney was his first novel, published at age 73, something you don’t hear about much, especially in such a youth-obsessed culture.”
Blauner and Laurie Duchovny had known each other for years before the book was published. One day in 1999 the two were talking and Laurie mentioned that her father had written a book, and she asked Blauner if he could possible give it a look over. He was touched that Laurie was being a sweet, dutiful daughter and decided to give the book a read.
“Chances are almost always that, no matter what, sad to say, I have to decline taking on 99 percent of what I see,” Blauner said, “The decision to take it on turned out to be easy, a natural, once I started reading the book, simply because I loved it, and knew that I could do right by it and by Ami.”
Blauner wasn’t looking for new clients at the time and was taking on very little fiction. The way it played out reminds Blauner of Walker Percy’s choice to take on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. When Percy first got Toole’s manuscript 11 years after the author’s death, Percy wasn’t expecting it to be as great as it was. When reading it Percy couldn’t, in good conscience, pass on the book. A Confederacy of Dunces later won a Pulitzer for nonfiction in 1981. Blauner sees the e-book release of Coney as a catalyst to introduce the book to a new generation of readers.
“He had a great eye and ear for detail,” Blauner recalls. “Everything in his writing was keenly-observed, and he was committed to his work. Perhaps above all else, he was a very versatile writer, equally at home and deft writing about the comic, the sad, the sublime, and the downright bizarre.”
Varda Ducovny said Ami was very much a part of this world, but in a funny way very removed from it. She recalls him having comical moments where he’d fall into being naïve, which she said seemed slightly out of place for such an intelligent man.
“He came home one day in a pair of orange, velvet, corduroy bell-bottom pants,” Varda said while laughing. “And he said, ‘Aren’t they beautiful? I got them from the Planned Parenthood thrift shop.’ I said, ‘Honey, they’re woman’s pants.’ He said, ‘No they’re not!’ but I said, ‘They’ve got the zipper on the side.’ He was naive in that way. He was very one of a kind.”