…but it’s fine to talk about me the way Chuck Twardy at Las Vegas Weekly did:
Tod Goldberg writes in a cleverly spun novel that forced me to abandon my wiseguy moratorium. Goldberg has an amusing flair for contemporary hard-boil, and he knows his crime and crime-fighting procedures. He sets his story in 1998, a neat hinge point for Las Vegas, too, morphing from the Mob’s skimming pool to a corporate spa town. The madly growing city sold itself as Disneyland with gambling. And, well … other amusements, like Wild Horse, the strip club owned by Bennie Savone.
The New York Times weighs in on Gangsterland…
Tod Goldberg’s comic crime novel opens with a Chicago gangster, Sal Cupertine, murdering several F.B.I. agents in a hotel room. He’s then shipped in a meat truck to Las Vegas, where he undergoes an arduous transformation into Rabbi David Cohen (“a new nose and chin,” new teeth, tattoos laser-removed and rigorous study of holy texts). The book alternates between the desert, where Cohen oversees a temple and its cemetery (which the mob uses for laundering cash and corpses), and Chicago, where the lone survivor of the hotel room blood bath is intent on learning the killer’s whereabouts. In his plotting, dialogue and empathy for the bad guys, Goldberg aspires to the heights of Elmore Leonard. For those who miss the master, “Gangsterland” is a high-grade substitute.
As a kid, the San Francisco Chronicle was the paper I read first thing every morning, so it’s always particularly cool to be in their pages. Here, the excellent writer Tony Dushane talked to me about all things Gangsterland…but also about how writing Burn Notice helped teach me to write crime fiction:
“I wrote five ‘Burn Notice’ books, and that was really the way to teach myself how to write crime stories,” he says. “I didn’t know how to make people turn the page and be interested in the story. All my books before that were so depressing and sad.”
Goldberg had meetings with show creator Matt Nix about how to approach the “Burn Notice” novels. “He gave me his theories on what the character was and what the show was about and about not just littering the streets with bodies, and it really stuck with me that you can write crime and it can be entertaining and it can be funny but you can still have inside of it an actual beating heart. And writing those five ‘Burn Notice’ books absolutely honed that skill for me.”
Oh, Rabbi Cohen’s also Sal Cupertine, a ruthless Chicago mafia hit man who’s had to assume a new identity after getting set up for the murder of FBI agents. And in Tod Goldberg’s laugh-while-you-cringe new novel “Gangsterland,” he’s one of the most compelling, and repulsive, crime-fiction protagonists in a long time.
We also got in depth about the big issues:
No one in the story comes off clean, except maybe children. Even rabbis are corrupted. Does that reflect your view of human nature?
I believe we all have our problems. We’re all works in progress. Particularly in crime fiction, you’re dealing with shades of horrible. Think of classic crime fiction — Sam Spade was a horrible human being, a dreadful guy. There’s a lineage of shades of grey with people who do bad things. I wanted to show the evolution of someone really horrible — like Sal — who perhaps by end of the book, you get a grudging empathy for. Someone loves him, and he loves somebody. That creates a sense of identification for the reader — I hope. There’s something in him that’s not unlike you.
Get the full story here.
Thanks to the excellent Brad Listi, who got me to reveal one of the darkest truths of my life: I was once the Homecoming King at Cal State Northridge. We also talk about things like my mother, Judaism, crime writing, killing people and, well, all sorts of the Otherppl stuff…Listen to it all here.
Or at least interviewing myself on The Nervous Breakdown:
Honestly? Writing. And writing and writing and writing. But sometimes, that just means I’m not writing at all, I’m just thinking about writing, thinking about what I haven’t written, thinking about what I’d like to write, thinking about maybe never writing again because, these days, there’s just an awful lot of good stuff on TV and if my choice is to sit quietly in my office writing murder stories or watching an infinite number of episodes of Chopped, well, Choppedwins. It’s a sickness, it really is. I find it profoundly, psychically comforting to watch other people cook food I’ll never eat while I – with absolutely no acuity in the field whatsoever – make snap judgments on the quality, taste, and general success or failure of the meal. The other thing is that Gangsterland took me a long time to write. The finished draft was about 450 pages and it turns out if you write a long novel, it takes some time and I write more slowly now than I used to (probably because of the aforementioned Choppedproblem). And then I had to rewrite a bunch of it, which took more time. And then it was baseball season and my team, the Oakland A’s, were in contention and thus I needed to spend a lot of prime writing time reading the tweets of the pitching staff and middle infielders.
A new interview this week in Vegas Seven about mixing the mafia and the Talmud…
I did feel I was taking a chance. There’s not much new under the sun as it relates to the mob—at least not the one we know traditionally. Casinos are multinational corporations now. Operation G-Sting revealed what everyone already suspected about the strip-club business in Las Vegas. The drugs are being handled by the cartels. Whitey Bulger is in prison. John Gotti is dead. The Sopranos dispelled a lot of myths about how glamorous the job might be. And now, to be an effective organized crime syndicate, you’re better off employing hackers than leg-breakers. But that was the challenge, to ask how an enterprising crook might con people out of money, and I needed to look no further than people’s relationship with their God and the business of death.
Need help burying a body? I can help:
I knew I wanted it to be a mordantly funny book, but I also knew I wanted to deal with serious issues, and to strike that balance was hard, because if you do either one poorly, the other one feels gratuitous.
I also have this opinion, generally, of crime fiction — these books or movies where there’s just 8,000 dead bodies, I just feel like it’s a disrespect to the idea of human life, that there’s not ramifications, that there aren’t people who loved that person who died. So in “Gangsterland,” I wanted to make sure that when someone died, they had a purpose…. If I’m going to show a hit man, I don’t want it to be glamorous. I want it to be, you know, half his face all over the place. I want it to be gross, because part of what I’m hopefully achieving by writing about it is demystifying the coolness of being a hit man. It’s a dirty job.
My pal Gina Frangello interviewed me this week in The Rumpus:
We like the idea of a guy who gets away with it (“it” in this case being a variety of things: murder, robbery, general mayhem, adultery, screwing over the government, basic intimidation and thuggery, etc.). It’s a very American ideal – the freedom to break the law. The fact is, though, what I think we really like is Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and James Gandolfini. We like what the media has created of the mob bosses in movies and TV and books, because it’s something the average person never comes into contact with, it’s almost as outwardly outlandish as a sexy vampire, and so we can romanticize it, it’s non-threatening.
You can read the rest of it here.
…and they’re pretty good:
Starred Review: “Complex characters with understandable motivations distinguish this highly unusual crime novel from Goldberg (Living Dead Girl). When a sample of some particularly fine heroin causes Sal Cupertine, a hit man for the Chicago Family, to abandon his usual careful methods and execute three undercover FBI agents in a downtown hotel, Sal is certain that the Mafia will make him disappear. What he doesn’t expect is that, months later, after multiple plastic surgeries and much study of Judaic holy texts, he will reemerge into the light of day in Las Vegas as Rabbi David Cohen. Back in Chicago, FBI agent Jeff Hopper is determined to track Sal down and make him pay for killing his team of agents. All Sal really wants to do is get to his wife, Jennifer, and their toddler son, William, and then disappear. Goldberg injects Talmudic wisdom and a hint of Springsteen into the workings of organized crime and FBI investigative techniques and makes it all work splendidly.”
Starred Review: “Targeted by both the feds and his bosses in the Chicago mob after messing up on the job, a prolific hit man hides out in Las Vegas as, of all things, a rabbi. Sal Cupertine has been offing people for more than 15 years without being seen or leaving a spot of evidence. But on a bad day in 1998, he kills three FBI agents—”Donnie Brascos”—in a hotel room to avoid capture. The mob wants Sal’s head for ruining an unspoken arrangement with the feds that lets it buy heroin from the Mexicans. Sal’s older cousin in the “The Family” secretly transports him to Vegas, where, his face surgically altered, the hit man is trained to become Rabbi David Cohen. Meanwhile, Jeff Hopper, an underachieving FBI agent whose lack of planning is blamed for the deaths of his colleagues, is in pursuit. Suspended for refusing to go along with his superiors’ acceptance of a burned corpse as Sal’s, Hopper has his big moment dressing down mob enforcer Fat Monte, who proves wiser and more sensitive than he looks. Clearly influenced by the great Elmore Leonard, Goldberg puts his own dry comic spin on the material, with perhaps a bit more self-reflection on Sal/David’s part than Leonard would allow. While anyone with an Italian last name is grist for a crime columnist in late-’90s Vegas, the Kosher Nostra is quietly making its own big scores, running illicit schemes out of a local synagogue. With a memory that earned him the nickname Rain Man, Sal is great at spouting quotes from the Torah—even as he eyes his next victim—but has a tendency to mix those words up with Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Clever plotting, a colorful cast of characters and priceless situations make this comedic crime novel an instant classic.”Starred Review: “Sal Cupertine, the Chicago Mob’s go-to hitman, expects that his Mob-boss cousin, Ronnie, will have him killed after Sal kills three FBI undercover agents. Occupational hazard, thinks the thoughtful killer; his biggest concern is for his wife and young son. So he is surprised when he is spirited out of Chicago to Las Vegas and, after a series of surgeries, is told that he will become David Cohen, youth rabbi at sprawling and prosperous Temple Beth Israel. In due course, he is counseling synagogue members with nuggets of wisdom from the Torah and Talmud, and, occasionally, paraphrased Springsteen lyrics—and reading the Kaddish for dead gangsters from all over the country who are interred as Jews in the synagogue’s cemetery. Back in Chicago, the fired FBI agent responsible for the loss of the undercovers is sure Sal is alive and determined to find him; Rabbi Cohen is scheming to reunite with his family and wondering who is the bigger gangster: the synagogue’s founder, Rabbi Kales, or Bennie Savone, strip-club owner, synagogue benefactor, and Kales’ son-in-law? Sal’s transformation—and intermittent edification—into Rabbi Cohen is brilliantly rendered, and Goldberg’s careening plot, cast of memorably dubious characters, and mordant portrait of Las Vegas make this one of the year’s best hard-boiled crime novels. — Thomas Gaughan”