Where Crime Fiction Meets the Talmud
Tod Goldberg’s gangster-turned-rabbi series is the madcap spiritual noir you didn’t know you were looking for
Many people know Tod Goldberg, the showman. Whether he’s posing questions to the new students in an assembly of the UC Riverside Palm Desert MFA, shocking seniors with his colorful language at the LA Times Festival of Books, or chatting up authors over a candy bowl at a writers’ festival (simultaneously cracking wise on twitter about their newest bespoke fashion trend), he’s always making someone laugh, and doing so with a twinkle in his eye. This twinkle appears to be equal parts mischievousness and genuine enthusiasm for human oddity. But Tod Goldberg, the writer — the one who told me in my first quarter of his MFA program to stop being intimidated by everyone because, “we’re all just people who sit around in our underwear, late at night, typing” — is introspective and deeply concerned with the welfare of people. Goldberg writes his observant vulnerability into the heart of his stories — even the ones involving killers.
Goldberg’s newest book, Gangster Nation (Counterpoint), is the sequel to his award-winning 2014 novel, Gangsterland. The series is going to be produced for TV by the team behind Peaky Blinders. The premise of the books is that Sal Cupertine, Chicago mafia hit man, makes a mistake: he shoots undercover FBI agents in a deal gone bad. He’s subsequently hidden in a temple in Las Vegas, given a new face, and a new identity: Rabbi David Cohen. Since he’s not Jewish — and has to become so, at least ostensibly— quickly, Rabbi David Cohen pulls from the Jewish texts he binge reads and rounds them out with Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Gangster Nation picks up two years after Gangsterland: Sal’s new face is failing him, and he is growing desperate to reunite with his wife and son.
Goldberg and I caught up over email about his reading habits, the one book he’s always trying to rewrite, and what makes him want to fight. We’ll be in conversation at Oakland’s East Bay Booksellers (formerly Diesel, A Bookstore) on October 5th if you’d like to hear the rest of the conversation.
Heather Scott Partington: Rabbi David Cohen says, “You want to know a man, read his books.” He’s heard it somewhere he can’t remember (“Emerson or Whitman or maybe it was George Washington?”). Which books should a person read to really know Tod Goldberg? Why those particular titles?
Tod Goldberg: I suppose it would be a combination of a lot of things. You would probably want to read my mother’s divorce handbook The Statue of Liberty is Cracking Up, which she wrote in the 1970s and which has anecdotes from my childhood in it, except I’m not really sure which ones, because my mother tore all of those pages out once when she was in a particularly dark stage of her mental illness. I was ten and I still have the same copy I’ve always had, but have never sought out a copy with all the intact pages to find out what’s missing. It’s on a shelf right beside me now. It’s a good reminder to me of how perilous this world can be, even when the threat is in your own mind. You would probably want to pick up every Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard, and Robert Parker book published before 1985, as those were the first crime novels I ever read. In a sort of Almost Famous-like scene, when my brother Lee went off to college, he left me with a bag of paperback books, which ended up as a kind of manual to a life in crime fiction, and then refilled the bag every Hanukkah. You’d probably want to read Empire Falls by Richard Russo, which is my favorite book of all time, and which taught me how to write in third person. And you’d want to read Alice Munro, whose work I turn to over and over again when I want to know how to express complex human emotion, or you’d just pick up The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a book that I kept in my pocket for a few years. But the truth, really, is that if you really want to know me, you’d buy a ton of books about UFOs, Bigfoot, weird psychic stuff, and ghost hunters, because if there is one thing that only my family really knows, it’s that I am totally obsessed by those books and have been since I was a kid. Not that I believe in any of that stuff. I mean. Not at all. But I’m pretty sure if I had more free time I could totally learn how to astral project.
(Also? It was Emerson. He said, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”)
HSP: A lot of angst in Gangster Nation comes from The Family’s middle management. The idea that working for someone else, doing the drudgery that it takes to keep things moving is soul-crushing. In the case of this novel, it pushes some of the lesser-knowns to make bold, even sloppy, moves toward greatness. Have you had any of those moments in your professional life? Did any of your previous jobs push you toward what you ultimately wanted to do, simply because they were so banal?
TG: I worked for a while in the infomercial business. This was right after I graduated from college and was trying to become a writer, so the mid-1990s. It was a terrible job. I was an account executive for a bunch of products with really dubious names and claims. There was one whose whole concept was that you could do exercises for your face that would essentially make you look decades younger, thus eliminating the need for plastic surgery, and yet it was, ironically, lauded by plastic surgeons. You can make yourself look like a cat for pennies on the dollar compared to plastic surgery! That wasn’t the call to action, but in my mind it was. Anyway, working in the infomercial business, even for just a year, I saw and experienced some deeply weird stuff. There was one time we got a call about a boatload of those rice pillows that had been infested with vermin, which then led to a discussion about how one burns vermin infested rice pillows on a boat in a port. We had an exercise device we sold that had some tension spring that was shooting out of it and breaking windows and hitting animals and children and such, which prompted a massive recall and a lot of panicked phone calls that inexplicably landed on my desk. And then there was the fact that the whole operation was connected to Swami Prakashanand Saraswati, who a decade later was arrested for being a child molester and skipped the country after getting $10 million in bail money paid for by another infomercial impresario. I tell you this all as a long way of saying that even then, at the bottom rung of an organization the seemed at best morally toxic by definition (separating people from their money in hopes that their cheeks won’t sag is a grift, folks, no matter if it’s on your TV or someone comes to town with a magic tonic) and actually abetting criminal activity at its worst, I only really figured out something was amiss when I came to work and the bagels and snacks had been removed from the kitchen. There was a meeting that day and our boss announced that in order to cuts costs because of the projectile tension screw problem, there would no longer be free snacks…and that there might be a few layoffs. I can’t say I made any bold moves toward greatness at that moment, but I did come home and tell my then-girlfriend-now-wife that if I had to work at that place any longer, I might jump out a window and that I really wanted to try to make a go at this writing thing full time, but not, categorically, in the infomercial business.
HSP: From Gangsterland to Gangster Nation, Rabbi David Cohen had to learn to live with anger simmering beneath the surface. You write, “He was about keeping his rage in check these days. Every morning, he wrapped tefillin on his strong arm, to remind himself of this… David couldn’t always be dialed to a ten, or else he’d have nowhere to go when he really needed to be angry. Six or seven, that was his sweet spot.” What discoveries did you make about rage as you wrote this character who needed to show such control?
TG: Part of the challenge in writing this character — or, really, characters, since he ends up being two different people with two different voices, both on the page and in his head — is that I have to make a guy who murdered people for a living and is now pretending to be a rabbi somehow the most empathetic person in the book, while also making him the most dangerous and duplicitous. But his primary rage comes from a simple place: he recognizes that the one thing keeping him from the things he wants most — his wife and son — is a mess of his own making. That he chose to be in this life by not making any choices at all, that when he could have gotten out of it years earlier, he never did, he just rolled through life letting other people make decisions for him. I think that’s a relatable rage. How many of us have had a moment when we realized that passivity had altered our life? The other thing, though, is that I think part of what exists in both of these books is a contemplation of what turns rage into violence, a thing I think about a lot. What pushes people to do terrible things. In the process of reading all of these books about Judaism and Jews in general, as I’ve tried to mirror what Sal Cupertine would be reading as he becomes more and more immersed in this fake life of Rabbi David Cohen, I’ve been struck by how often the contemplation of violence has shown up in the history of the Jews. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise — a history of persecution is going to obviously give rise to this sort of thinking — and so I’ve tried to integrate this holy interpretation into this character’s life in a more profound way, which is also part of the process of making a monster into a human. The introduction of spirituality into a person who never believed in anything is something I’m fascinated by and how that spirituality either condemns or condones their actions. But, you know, not all spirituality is about peace and love…as the Talmud says, if a man comes to kill you, wake up early and kill him first.
You know, not all spirituality is about peace and love…as the Talmud says, if a man comes to kill you, wake up early and kill him first.
HSP: You’ve said before that your career is, in many ways, about trying over and over again to rewrite Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Does this hold true for Gangster Nation?
TG: Oh, for sure. Of Mice and Men has always been an important book to me because it was one of the first novels I was actually able to read — I was profoundly dyslexic as a kid and didn’t start reading until I was about ten and the novel is actually written very simply, as much of Steinbeck is, in terms of sentence complexity, so when I picked it up initially, it wasn’t hard for me to understand — but also because it was the first book that made me cry. That last scene when George shoots Lennie in the back of the head to save him from a worse death is so powerful, but equally so are the dreams that every character has, and how deftly Steinbeck entwines those dreams between the characters. I always find myself thinking about characters in relation to where you they want their lives to go, the dream they have for themselves, so in Gangster Nation, as with Gangsterland, those dream lives often cause people to make terrible decisions. And it’s no coincidence that Gangsterland opens with Sal Cupertine talking about shooting people in the back of the head…and in Gangster Nation, the idea that you can just shoot someone in the back of the head and it will solve all your problems never quite turns out how it should. In Of Mice and Men, George desperately wants to be somebody and by the end, he is somebody, but not for the reasons he ever could have expected. I’m trying to get there with these people I’m writing, too.
HSP: Gangster Nation isn’t all eyeball-slicing and arson and severed heads; there’s great contrast between the violent acts of the old-school mafia and their unspoken code of conduct. It reminds me of the Chivalric code: the idea that a person can be a fighter and yet is responsible for upholding a higher standard when he’s not fighting. Limits are set. Affairs, or divorces, have to be handled with delicacy. Families are off limits. And yet, these guys are killers. Why was it important to you to explore this duality of the crime world?
TG: I guess I’ve always been interested in how bad people compartmentalize their lives, but I’m also driven a little batty by this romantic notion of honor among gangsters. The fact is, as long as there have been crime families and street gangs, there’s been this idea that they all live by some kind of strict code. It’s bullshit. The reason we know about these people is that they can’t keep their mouths closed, they have a narcissistic desire to be noticed — street gangsters cover their bodies with tattoos which explain exactly who they are, for instance — and they constantly kill people that other people love, which means someone is going to say something. So part of what I’m writing about is satirizing these codes, revealing them to be the farce that they are. That said, I think the reason people are attracted to gangsters as a form of entertainment — and I recognize that as the author of two books about gangsters, with a TV show in development about the same gangsters, that I am complicit — has a lot to do with wish fulfillment on some level. We all want to be the person who can do whatever we want. The person no one messes with. The person no one gets over on. It’s a pipe dream, of course, because the only people who can do precisely what they want all of the time are sociopaths. I think, too, that the duality you speak of has a lot to do with the appeal of anti-heroes at certain junctures of American history, actually. Because a true anti-hero has to live by a strict code if they’re going to defeat whatever system they’re fighting, particularly if their actions might be illegal within that system.
HSP: You write, “David was of the opinion Rabbis couldn’t be Wyatt Earping motherfuckers on the street.” Is it a challenge to keep the level of action up when what you’ve done is write your protagonist into a mostly quiet congregation in the desert? How did you approach the idea of keeping David/Sal on edge while you also developed his understanding of the Jewish faith?
TG: Is it a challenge? Yes and no. I’m still writing crime fiction, so in order for there to be a book, something bad has to happen. There’s a pretty big leap in time from the end of Gangsterland to the start of Gangster Nation — two years, at least for David/Sal’s part of the book — and what I want the reader to understand is that in those two years, yeah, it’s been a little quiet, and that’s when David/Sal has become more Jewish, has begun to settle into his role as a rabbi, so that when things jump off for David/Sal he’s a little rusty. All the while, a noose is tightening around his neck, things happening back in Chicago and Wisconsin that will cause him problems. But I also wanted society to be tightening around him, too, so that the world David/Sal has carefully constructed becomes a prison. Keeping the action up is hard in the sense that I don’t want to make the book a cartoon, I want there to be consequences for actions. If someone shoots a gun, or if someone dies, I want it to reverberate. I want the world to be altered every time something bad happens, and to do that with as much as much realism (even though, of course, the premise itself is intentionally sort of absurd) as possible, it requires a slower pace than, say, The House of Secrets, the book I wrote with Brad Meltzer. In that book, we really pumped up the speed a great deal, so that it had a feverish pace, shorter chapters, more clipped dialog, a timeline of just a few weeks, which I think really worked. But this is a book the unfolds over several months, which means the action has to be intense when it happens, and then in between this larger world I’ve constructed has to keep pushing forward. The stuff with Sal becoming more and more comfortable as Rabbi Cohen requires some scenes that you wouldn’t normally see in your run-of-the-mill crime novel — a wedding, a funeral, a bar mitzvah — but hopefully those events are just strange enough to keep people reading and wondering just when Rabbi Cohen might need to remember he’s a hitman.
HSP: One of the things that gives this novel such weight is its connection — and subsequently, Rabbi David Cohen’s — to historical events. “No, these days, because of the stories of his congregation, he thought about shit that had gone down in 1917,” David thinks. “All that Pale of Settlement mishegoss. Pograms and show trials and Cossacks chasing down toddlers with dogs. That shit pissed him off like it had happened yesterday, because, in effect, it had. Three years ago he was blissfully unenlightened.”
There’s also a remarkable conversation between Rabbi Cohen and his mentor, Rabbi Kales, about the Warsaw Uprising during World War II. “Why would they stage a rebellion they knew would fail?” Cohen wonders. Kales’ questions challenge Cohen to think about why it might matters to history that we fight. What matters enough to you that you’d fight (or are fighting) for it, even if, as Rabbi Kales tells Sal/Rabbi Cohen, “There is no post-war for you”?
TG: I think, for Jews, the idea that the mob is coming for them remains a pressing concern, and in this case I’m talking about the hordes, not a bunch of guys in suits talking about whether to take the cannoli or leave the gun. So when I see things like Nazis and white supremacists marching on an American city, chanting that Jews will not replace them, it doesn’t make me scared, it emboldens me to stand up and be heard, to actively support with my time and money and words the causes and people I believe in, because I’m not hiding in the ceiling waiting for something bad to happen. I remember when I wrote the scene you’re speaking of — it was last summer, in the middle of the election season, and I was already feeling a looming sense of dread. I was reading all of these books about how the Holocaust had occurred, not because I thought it would specifically play a role in this book, but because I wanted to have the same stuff in my head that Rabbi Cohen would have in his, and while reading about the Warsaw Uprising I was struck by this notion that the righteous often fight even when they know they’ll lose to empower others around them. I don’t think I’m righteous, not by a long stretch, but I am not one to stay quiet and I suspect a lot of that comes from personal history. My family did escape Russia. My grandfather told us stories about Cossacks running him down with dogs. Those are real things. So, today, they still matter to me. And of course I care about other things, too — my wife, my family, my friends, my students — that I think I end up fighting for them every day, whether I’m totally aware of it or not.
When I see things like Nazis and white supremacists marching on an American city, chanting that Jews will not replace them, it doesn’t make me scared, it emboldens me to stand up and be heard.
HSP: How did 9/11 change the lives of the characters in the book? Was your writing on this subject — especially on how the tragedy of the event affected the economics of the crime world — generated from research or speculation?
TG: I always knew Gangster Nation would take place right before and right after 9/11 because, as I said above, I wanted Rabbi Cohen to be noosed in by society, to literally trap him in Las Vegas. I wanted the characters in the book to be faced with a larger existential fear, wanted to see how they’d react. But also I wanted to explore the nature and history of criminality and profound violence in this country, the things we are willing to accept in the due course of living and those things we are not willing to accept. And, too, the role religion has played in our relationship to violence. All of which is related to the terrorist attacks and then the subsequent response by the country — things like the Patriot Act, for instance, which eroded many of our civil liberties in favor of personal safety, which is a bargain we were all willing to make right then. The economy of organized crime has always been tied to the social issues of the day and in the aftermath of 9/11, when law enforcement was looking the other way, all of the things I talked about in the book flourished — that’s the truth — and, likewise, you see it repeated throughout history. What I’ve enjoyed doing in both of these books is mixing reality with my own fantasy world, because if often turns out that the reality is far more nefarious. Even the tiny fact that the mayor of Las Vegas during this time, Oscar Goodman, was a Mafia lawyer — a thing most everyone knows, if they know anything about Las Vegas — seems absurd on its face. But it’s true and could only happen in a place like Las Vegas.
HSP: This is not a question. I just want to confirm that tossing a Teddy Ruxpin into a Visqueened murder space in an abandoned warehouse is creepy as hell.
TG: I find stuffed animals horrifying. Their dead eyes. Their propensity to be dressed in human clothes. How, when you’re a kid, your sister tells you all of your stuffed animals become living creatures when you fall asleep, so you fake being asleep for hours in an attempt to catch this transformation.
Or maybe I just had a mean sister.
HSP: What is the timeline like on the Gangsterland TV series that’s been optioned? It’s going to make a great series. And what’s next for you?
TG: The timeline is something beyond my control! The project is in great hands — it’s being produced by the team behind Peaky Blinders — and I feel very confident, but with these things, the best you can do is try not to obsess about it. It would be fantastic if it all worked out. My plan is to start writing again later this fall…about some characters that might be familiar to a few people…