September 25, 2018

Author Tod Goldberg goes gangster

Tod Goldberg was excited to have his author photo taken for the jacket of his new crime novel, “Gangsterland” (Counterpoint Press).

“I’ve always wanted to be one of those dudes that dresses like their characters on their book jackets,” Goldberg said. “Any crime writer that’s wearing a trench coat and has a bulldog on a leash, I always think, ‘Yeah, you’re living it, dude.’ That’s my life. I want that.”

His actual author photo is far more conservative. Although Goldberg may be a nice Jewish boy who dreams of passing as a gangster, he’s far from the antihero protagonist of “Gangsterland,” a legitimate Chicago Mafia killer-for-hire who disguises himself as a rabbi in the Las Vegas suburbs. 

After killing three undercover FBI agents in a drug deal gone wrong, Sal Cupertino goes underground, where a plastic surgeon rewires his jaw to reconstruct his face. He spends weeks poring over the Talmud and midrash in order to convince synagogue members that he is Rabbi David Cohen. Sal takes a while to grow into his new identity: “David Cohen? That wasn’t a tough guy. That was a guy who fixed your glasses. That was your lawyer.”

It sounds far-fetched, but the transformation of Cupertino into Cohen is the true joy of “Gangsterland.” The hardened hit man, nicknamed “The Rain Man” for his impeccable memory and attention to detail, grapples with the biblical stories of the prophet Ezekiel (“a complete whack job of the first order”), the Jewish interpretation of life after death (“it involved Jews rolling from their graves all the way to Israel, which made no sense whatsoever”) and passing off Bruce Springsteen lyrics as talmudic proverbs.

Goldberg, director of the low-residency MFA creative-writing program at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Center, lived in Las Vegas from 1998 to 2000, the period “Gangsterland” takes place. He wrote a regular column for Las Vegas City Life and is currently a book critic for Las Vegas Weekly. This is Goldberg’s 10th work of fiction; he’s also written two nonfiction books about Las Vegas — a guide to food and drink, and a guide to Sin City’s seedy, after-hours nightclub scene, although his publisher folded just before the latter book’s release. “There’s copies of that book somewhere in existence, but I’ve never actually seen it,” Goldberg joked. “But I got to take strip club dances off my taxes that year.”

Much of the action in “Gangsterland” takes place in Summerlin, an affluent, master-planned community bought and developed by the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. It’s described as an opulent expanse of conspicuous consumption, filled with “precisely manicured lawns, pastel and cream homes, and gold Lexuses.” It’s that sense of newfound wealth that makes the desert landscape a fitting place in which to disappear — and to hatch illegal moneymaking schemes.

“Nothing actually takes place on the Strip in the novel, because I think the really weird, dark side of Las Vegas happens in the suburbs” —  where the gangsters actually go home at night — he said.  “I’m sort of fascinated by the minutiae of how evil people go about their daily lives.”

Rabbi Cohen is tasked with overseeing Temple Beth Israel and its cemetery, which the Mafia uses to bury its “war dead,” the victims of gang violence and retribution. He makes an additional income by harvesting the tissue and organs and selling them to hospitals. It’s not your typical gangster lifestyle, but it’s part of a larger story — the changes in organized crime since “The Godfatherand other Mafia novels were published in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Now that online gambling is legal, casinos are multinational corporations, and marijuana and other drugs are easy to find, Goldberg said, you don’t need to go to someone who might break your kneecaps. “The Mafioso that we grew up with as kids — this big dude eating pasta who’s a Corleone in our movie memories — is now some 25-year-old dude in a shiny shirt who’s hacking into your bank account.”

While Rabbi Cohen eases into his new life, ousted and disgraced FBI agent Jeff Hopper is calling up old sources to track Sal Cupertino down and take revenge for the murder of his team of agents. It becomes a breathtaking cat-and-mouse game that forces readers to wonder which side they’re on.

The novel came out of a short story, “Mitzvah,” published in his 2009 book, “Other Resort Cities.” To flesh out the character of Rabbi David Cohen, Goldberg dived into the sacred texts to understand what kinds of things a rabbi might say, and regularly logged on to to chat with a Chabad employee in real time for an authentic rabbinic perspective. And, sometimes, he’d go to Sherman’s Deli in Palm Springs, near his home in La Quinta, and eavesdrop on conversations.

Sal Cupertino’s transformation into a rabbi doesn’t keep him from continuing to kill people in order to cover up his trail. But despite his new life, he daydreams about reuniting with his wife, Jennifer, and their infant son, William, and making a clean break.

“I wanted to write something about the Mafia, about religion and about family that looked at all three of them in a different light,” Goldberg said. “That what we think we have loyalty to is not what we actually have loyalty to.”

Goldberg was going through a lot of personal issues as he wrote “Gangsterland.” His parents had both died; he’d just turned 40, and his “midlife crisis,” as he put it, coincided with his research into Judaism. He said that that period of grappling with metaphysical issues helped him deal with those very real struggles. “I’m not an observant Jew by any stretch of the imagination, but my cultural and spiritual awareness and enlightenment is so much more now,” he said.

Although there are Jewish themes that run throughout the book, it’s not just for Jewish readers — at its heart, it’s a deeply funny crime novel about the competing desires for justice and survival — and the battle between doing what’s right and doing what’s necessary.