NEARLY A DECADE AGO, Tod Goldberg wrote a short story about a mob-connected hit man from Chicago who goes undercover in Las Vegas as a rabbi. That story, “Mitzvah,” turned into the novel Gangsterland, and now with the publication of Gangster Nation has turned into a series and possibly a television show. I spoke with Tod via email about the evolution of the series and the development of its exceptionally conflicted protagonist, Sal Cupertine.
JIM RULAND: You’ve said that when you wrote Gangsterland, you didn’t know you were beginning a series. Did your experience writing the Burn Notice books provide any guidance when picking up Gangster Nation where you left off?
TOD GOLDBERG: Not really, because my main job when I was writing Burn Notice was to make the books evergreen … well, not my main job, but a primary one, because when you’re writing books that are tied to a franchise like Burn Notice, you can’t do something in the books that will mess with the continuity of the show itself. So I couldn’t have Michael Westen lose a finger, or I couldn’t have Sam Axe suddenly become depressed and sullen and questioning all of the things he’d ever done, or Fiona couldn’t decide, screw it, I’m moving to Los Angeles and getting into improv comedy. Plus, I wanted the books to be comfort food — something that when the show was off the air for the break, or off the air permanently, fans could come back to for a taste of what gave them joy. It was an awful lot of fun to write those books and I could have kept writing them forever if I’d wanted to, but after five books in four years I felt pretty well cooked. However, what writing Burn Notice taught me was actually something far more profound, which was how to write commercial fiction. Realizing you’re servicing a franchise that already has millions of fans means you can’t be as precious with your work, but it also means understanding what a larger population expects, too. It was particularly enlightening.
One of the things the Gangsterland series does is address the mythology of Las Vegas. Its own brand of myth-making contributes to the sense that it’s not real, that it’s a fabrication, a mirage in the desert. In Gangster Nation you really drill down into issues of place and property. Why is that?
I’ve always been fascinated by place and property, perhaps because I’ve spent a lot of my life living in resort cities, which by definition requires a bit of magical realism to pull things off. Las Vegas takes it to the extreme, of course, when you look at the Strip or the Fremont Street Experience, but so too in the gated and master-planned communities that now make up the suburbs on both sides of the Strip. Summerlin, where the majority of the action takes place in the Las Vegas portion of the book, could be cut and pasted into Orange County and no one would blink — it’s a cookie-cutter idea of what a relaxed suburban lifestyle should look like, even though the people who live in the homes are largely employed in a vast con known as the “gaming industry.” But as it relates to the great crimes of our nation in the last 100 years or so, the mortgage fraud that destroyed our economy in 2008 was of course a pretty significant one … that went entirely unpunished, save for the people who lost their homes and lives and all that. And no place was more emblematic of this false hope than Las Vegas, which ended up with ghost-town neighborhoods after the collapse. When Gangster Nation takes place, in 2001, they were already way down deep in the subprime world and already people were getting conned in legit and illegitimate ways to get those homes. Turns out the mob was a better bet than Countrywide, in the long run.
You’ve embedded a very cogent critique of neoliberalism in these crime stories! But I especially love how your Las Vegas is one the tourists don’t come to Nevada to see. No showgirls or pit bosses or drifters in convertibles with heads full of LSD. How do the Gangsterland novels fit in the legacy of Vegas noir?
That’s the thing about Las Vegas: If you live there, you don’t really go to the Strip unless you’re going to work. It’s actually a pretty sleepy community that is surprisingly conservative and surprisingly religious — Hillary won Clark County by over 10 percent in the last election, though she took the state by a much smaller margin; but Nevada in general is pretty much a 50-50 state in terms of liberal versus conservative, going decisively to Bush in 2000 (which is when the book takes place) through 2004 and overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 and 2012 — and conveniently both parties are notoriously corrupt in the state. So there’s a lot of false equivalencies of the American Dream being trotted out in the state on both sides, though they’re uniformly supportive of the elements that bring darkness to the place … which is to say, gambling and tourism. That said, normal people still live there and so if you’re writing crime fiction about Las Vegas, I think you have to talk about what happens away from the bright lights.
When I first wrote about these characters, it was in an anthology called Las Vegas Noir in 2008 and I was tasked with writing about Summerlin, where I used to live, and so that forced me to take the story off the Strip, to look at the normal people, at the commonplace crime that takes place. And when I wrote the first book, I told myself that I wasn’t going to set a single scene on the Strip, that everything was going to happen where the real deception was taking place — the suburbs, which were selling people an idea of paradise in the middle of the desert, everything manufactured to be hospitable — and then sort of forced my own hand by making it so Sal/Rabbi David Cohen was forbidden from going to the Strip to avoid the cameras and facial-recognition programs that were just starting to proliferate out there and grew all the more present since 9/11. None of which is sort of the expected ideal of Las Vegas noir stories in general, but I think part of what I am always trying to do with these characters is to also poke fun at the stereotypes of the genre. Mob stories in particular are filled with romantic notions and post-Puzo, they fall so easily into cliche, perhaps because Puzo also taught modern-day mobsters how to be mobsters, creating lore where there wasn’t before. To be perfectly honest, I’ve disliked a lot of crime fiction set in Las Vegas because the stories don’t go anywhere new. That’s changed in the last few years with books like Vu Tran’s excellent Dragonfish, which I think is one of the best novels about Las Vegas, ever, never mind crime fiction. So where do I fit in the legacy? I’m writing about the time period where it became popular to say that Las Vegas was better when the Mafia controlled it, when it became apparent that the corporations who took over the city from the crooks weren’t, in fact, a total improvement. Which is absolutely crazy. But that’s what Las Vegas does to people: it makes you put aside your normal values.
A lot of crime novels tend to be first-person affairs. Direct action driven by direct characters. You take a more circumspect approach with multiple points of view. Can you talk about this decision and how it influenced the kind of book you wanted to write?
Well, I think if I were writing a more traditional whodunit, I wouldn’t write from multiple points of view, but in this case the choice comes from both a plot necessity — I wanted to show the ripples of a crime, in this case how the people Sal Cupertine killed in the previous book, which caused him to disappear into the guise of Rabbi David Cohen, have materialized into bigger problems outside his own view — and a thematic necessity — which is that the book is about how the government, the crime families, and religious organizations end up gnawing on different parts of the same bone. But also there’s a functional character reason: the main character isn’t doing notable things every single day. Most of the time, Sal/Rabbi David Cohen is busy doing boring rabbi things. Likewise, the former FBI agent who is hunting him — Matthew Drew — is busy trying to earn a living on most days, the gangsters who are hoping to get rid of him are also busy trying to earn a living, and, on most days, Sal’s wife Jennifer is just trying to keep her shit together enough to raise her son. That’s part of what I wanted to also show, generally, that the life of a criminal, the life of an FBI agent, and the life of someone just trying to live in the shadow of those worlds are mostly a mundane affair, punctuated by action … not action punctuated by the mundane.
No one wants to read that, however. People want to read the parts where interesting things happen. So shifting point of view and engaging a few different characters while keeping Sal/Rabbi David Cohen as the focal point became my way of telling a more complex story without long chapters where the characters just kind of sit around thinking about going to Target (though, now that I think about it, I do have scene in a Target … and another in a Walmart…).
Sal Cupertine is a very bad man, yet he embraces some of the truths of the Jewish tradition that he is impersonating. One of these holds, “Meet all sorrow standing up.” That seems like great advice for a hit man.
It’s not bad life advice, really, no matter a person’s vocation. There’s a lot of Talmudic knowledge that can be used to justify almost any behavior, or to edify it. I get emails on occasion from readers who tell me that Rabbi David Cohen is misusing something from the Talmud or the Torah and I want to tell them that’s because he’s not a real rabbi, he’s a hit man, and that what he says the Talmud teaches is oftentimes a ruse because he knows the Jews he’s speaking to don’t know any better, which is why he can also sometimes get by merely using a line from a Bruce Springsteen song instead … and then I think, “Well, if I have to explain this joke, we both end up poorer from the experience.” So I usually just say something like, “Thanks, I’ll check it out.”
The larger thing, of course, is that the evolution of Sal Cupertine into the Rabbi David Cohen ends up making him a bit less predictable, because now this ruthless killer is beginning to feel pangs of empathy, to sense that his life has some spiritual worth, and also he’s beginning to feel, dare I say, good about helping people sometimes. He feels bad that he’s performing sham weddings. This allows me to take the character down some roads that aren’t usual in a crime novel, to examine things I find intellectually interesting, in additional to having a guy running around shooting people who piss him off, which I also find intellectually interesting, or at least emotionally satisfying on some days.
Without giving anything away, what’s next for Sal/Rabbi David Cohen and the Gangsterland series?
There will be another book, for sure, and we recently sold the books to the folks who make the TV show Peaky Blinders, which could mean great things are coming, or nothing ever gets made, of course. I don’t see me writing more than three books with Sal/Rabbi Cohen, at this point, but who knows? Maybe I’ll do a YA series! Picture books! I look at a writer like James Lee Burke and the great things he’s done with a character like Dave Robicheaux and inhabiting Louisiana so acutely and I try to imagine if I could write 20 books about Sal Cupertine and Las Vegas … and it doesn’t seem possible or plausible, but I know for sure I have another 400 pages, at least.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but have people said, “Well actually there are a lot of similarities between being a rabbi and a hit man?”
Yeah, but in particular I hear it from rabbis! I hear from a lot of rabbis, actually, to talk about their jobs — not many hit men contact me to discuss the finer points of their work, thankfully — and to tell me funny stories, or to tell me, “Hey, you might find this an interesting parallel,” and then tell me about some minor crime that took place in their shul. It’s not usually things that would involve a hit man, but there are certainly some clear lines to be drawn between organized crime and organized religion and their attendant hierarchal structures, but also in that each requires a certain amount of fealty. If you’re going to devote yourself to some Mafia don or a rabbi or a priest or cult leader or whatever, in the end it’s because you think your life will be better for it — that you’ll get some tangible payoff, in this life or the next. That means a level of devotion, of giving a part of yourself to someone else. I am innately drawn to that … in a mostly negative way.
Can you talk about your own faith? As you’ve gone on this journey with Sal/Rabbi David Cohen, what’s been the payoff for you?
I’ve never felt more Jewish in my life. I don’t know if that’s entirely about my immersion in the holy books in order to write this character or if it’s the rise in anti-Semitism I’ve seen subsequent to the election in 2016, the march of Nazis in Charlottesville, or merely that I’m now 47, my parents are dead, my grandparents are long dead, and I’m now at the top of the family tree, along with my siblings and cousins, which I think naturally makes you look back at how you got to this place in your life. It’s impossible to grow up with the last name Goldberg and not know you’re a Jew, of course, but the truth is that I didn’t know much about Judaism itself until about 10 years ago — which is true for a lot of cultural Jews, as it were, which is to say Jews who don’t go to temple, who eat bacon, and who only really take part in rituals on holidays. But of late, I find my thinking really influenced by the things I’ve learned in the Talmud, by the lessons, by the philosophy. It hasn’t made me more religious, but it has made me more spiritual, and also more socially active.
A weird thing happened to me a few months ago — a woman responded to something I’d said on Facebook by sending me a photo of Hitler. This was on a public forum hosted by the local newspaper ostensibly about local politics, but which had mostly devolved into a place where people argued national politics and lunatics posted conspiracy theories. Anyway, I was shocked by this, so I took a photo of it, and periodically people would ask me if it had happened, that they’d heard this person had done this thing — she was a local conservative political supporter and had once run for city council or some such thing herself — and was it true. And I would always say yes, of course it was true, and I’d show them the picture, because it was crazy! But she was not the first or the last person to send me a photo of Hitler. Well, eventually, this person ended up hosting an event in her home for local political candidates and I was asked, yet again, if it was true that she’d sent me a photo of Hitler and yet again I said yes, of course, here’s the photo. Except this time, it all ended up on the front page of the local newspaper.
So I had to go over to my mother-in-law’s house and sit down and explain to her this was a thing that was happening, that she was going to get the paper in the morning and I was going to be on the front page. She said to me, “Why would someone post a photo of Hitler in response to something you said?” And I said, “Because a crack of darkness has opened up in the world and all the hate has come flooding out of it. And now people feel like they can do such things to Jews or anyone else.” It was something my good friend, the poet Matthew Zapruder, had said in response to some other event of anti-Semitism in the United States and it had stuck with me. My mother-in-law is a devout Christian and she sat there for a long time, not speaking, and then she started to get teary eyed, and said, “I didn’t know such things still happened.” And I said, “This has never stopped happening.”
I tell you all of this because the truth is, it doesn’t matter how much faith I have, how much spirituality I possess, my last name will always be the marker of my heritage — the difference now is that I carry others’ heritage with it, by virtue of my job as a writer, people who would never speak up. That means something more in these times.
Jim Ruland is the author of Forest of Fortune, co-author of My Damage with Keith Morris of Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and OFF!, and curator of the Southern California based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its 14th year.