OCTOBER 19, 2014
WHAT’S LEFT TO SAY about the trials and tribulations of the Italian-American mobster? We’ve seen him in strip clubs, and we’ve seen him in therapy. At this point, his biography nestles somewhere between JFK and Lincoln in our bookshelf of familiar topics. Undoubtedly aware of this, Tod Goldberg has decided to put his own absurd twist on the same old mafia tales with his novel Gangsterland.
When a botched drug buy leaves three FBI agents and an informant dead, venerable Chicago hit man Sal Cupertine is forced to go deep underground. And I mean deep: after a series of back-alley facial surgeries and a crash course in sacred Jewish texts, the quiet made man is transformed into David Cohen, a designer-suit-wearing assistant rabbi in suburban Las Vegas.
Officially, Cupertine is dead — his body (or whatever was left of it) served up to the FBI as a peace offering by his boss and cousin, Ronnie Cupertine. The Bureau, embarrassed by the slaughter, is happy to accept the show of goodwill and move on, and doesn’t look into Sal’s death any further. Special Agent Jeff Hopper, however, has his doubts. It was Hopper who (accidentally) blew the agents’ cover, and he’s understandably invested in making things right, especially after he’s put on paid administrative leave. While Hopper is out for justice for his fallen colleagues, he’s driven by something else, too: a conviction that Sal Cupertine believes he whacked the careless agent during his spree. The gangster’s imagined satisfaction torments him. His professional days numbered and his nerves fraying, Hopper does what all men in his predicament do: he goes rogue.
Hopper recruits Matthew Drew, an eager beaver fresh out of the academy, to follow him down his path of questionable decisions. As for Sal Cupertine/Rabbi Cohen, he quickly learns the terms of his employment. In exchange for breathing — and the safety of his wife and son back in Chicago — he will do whatever dirty deed needs doing for Vegas mobster Bennie Savone. The rabbi guise, we learn, was concocted by Savone and his father-in-law Rabbi Kales, spiritual leader of the Vegas synagogue Temple Beth Israel. After various problems at his strip club, Savone rightly concluded that charging obscene amounts of money for building-naming rights is a much less stressful racket. Not to mention that Rabbi Cohen’s expertise in body disposal will come in handy after he takes control of Temple Beth Israel’s ambitious new funeral home.
The book is set in 1998 and 1999, that innocent era when the most serious national concern was Y2K. References to computer-induced calamity aside, there’s not much else that gives away the time period, aside perhaps from the explosion of new gated subdivisions across the country. Rabbi Cohen has been stationed in one of them, a made-from-scratch community called The Lakes at Summerlin Greens; Temple Beth Israel, a few miles away, is ensconced in a sea of similar neighborhoods. Their supposed comforts, however, are a source of puzzlement to the thoughtful murderer-for-hire:
For a people that spent forty years lost in a desert, David found it more than a little dubious that they’d parked themselves in a place where it could happen just as easily, the replication of precisely manicured lawns, pastel and cream homes, and gold Lexuses a desert in itself.
This ribbing of contemporary Jewish life — or taste-challenged American affluence in general — runs through the book, though it’s mostly gentle. The book’s real bite comes from its exposure of corrupt religious authority, and the story is at its best when it’s mocking our unquestioning acceptance of whatever morsels of wisdom our leaders decide to feed us. (For all we know, they could moonlight as hit men. Or writers.) Caught short on mollifying answers to his congregants’ not-so-vexing questions, Rabbi Cohen regularly swaps in lyrics from Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young songs for holy book wisdom, which is both a testament to the songwriters’ lyricism and a poke at the abstruseness of many religious platitudes. For most of his congregants, this improvisation goes unnoticed.
Theological examination, though, isn’t really central to the plot, as it might be in some more self-serious crime novels. There are some teachable moments about the Talmud — like the belief that in Judaism you’re judged by your actions, a position of particular concern to a former hit man — but many of Rabbi Cohen’s hazy insights could have just as easily come from a pastor, imam, or Zen master.
The pursuit of Cupertine/Cohen is told from Hopper’s point of view as he stumbles from one lead to the next. Hopper comes alive as a decent but struggling ex–law enforcer out for justice — no small accomplishment, given the well-worn history of the type — but the buddy pairing with Matthew is mostly a forgettable distraction. I’m not really sure why he made the final edit, given all of the other cooks in this narrative kitchen. Were he to disappear — as one of the Cupertines might put it — the story wouldn’t suffer much.
This hints at the biggest issue with Gangsterland: it sometimes lacks a sense of urgency. Rabbi Cohen has no idea that anyone is on his tail, so his half of Gangsterland unfolds like a separate saga about his reinvented existence in Las Vegas. (Not that this new life as a religious huckster and corpse launderer isn’t deeply entertaining.) Too much of Hopper’s time is spent in the wilderness, pivoting from one minor revelation to the next. There is of course a final confrontation, but until then we get only occasional clues that there will be any collision on this course. I don’t think Gangsterland is meant to be a potboiler, and its clever setup helps it transcend formula. But the rabbi’s canny insights don’t entirely cover for the book’s lack of forward propulsion.
The idea of an Italian-American hit man literally repurposed into a rabbi is funny. (Though, actually not beyond the realm of possibility: in 2008, former Gambino crime family member Louis Ferrante published a book about his conversion to Orthodox Judaism in prison, Unlocked. As he put it in an interview, “HarperCollins made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”) The gimmick flies, of course, because we’re not supposed to think that rabbis or Jews and (non-white-collar) crime mix. The closest Jews get to the slammer, in pop culture at least, is when they’re escorting their clients to a bail hearing. Popular representations of Jews tend to take the form of Gangsterland’s Larry Kirsch, a gauche Las Vegas doctor who has business with Rabbi Cohen. For Dr. Kirsch, a typical afternoon involves administering a round of Botox and getting a lap dance, among other vital tasks.
Portraits of the Jewish man as a late-capitalist softie are plentiful in Gangsterland, but there are also glimpses of Jewish pride and solidarity. In the beginning of the book, during Sal Cupertine’s transition to Rabbi David Cohen, the hit man’s feelings about his newly adopted cultural group are largely admiring, if a bit flawed: “The Jews, the thing was, they didn’t get down with this woe-is-me shit. They took vengeance, you fucked with the wrong person, you woke up with Mossad standing over your bed.” Unlike many of his literary forebears and contemporaries, Goldberg, it seems, has not been seized by self-evisceration or self-doubt. There’s no scolding messaging about universalism here, just respect for a group that looks after its own.
Given that Goldberg’s source material also inspired the likes of The Godfather (and Gigli), the temptation to add romantic flourishes was surely hard to resist. Gangsterland, however, is a modern story, written for readers who like their imaginary characters to live in the real world. Rabbi Cohen’s lack of sentimentality is affirmed early on. As he chats with Rabbi Kales on a drive through Summerlin, he realizes that old mafiosi and religious elders aren’t so different after all: “They both wanted you to […] listen to the stories of how things used to be, the past always a pristine vision of a golden age, the present always a bag of shit […].”
This is an ironic observation given Jewish-American history. Time was when Jewish kneecappers weren’t a punch line. Books like Tough Jews and But He Was Good to His Mother, among others, have chronicled Jewish participation in the underworld. Somewhere in these stories there’s probably a rough prototype of Rabbi Cohen, only he’s in a fifth-story tenement in the Lower East Side, not a McMansion in a sprawling suburb. Tough Jews, for example, recounts the life of Red Levine, a hit man so righteous he wouldn’t murder on the Sabbath. (How’s that for a creed?)
But that was then, as Rabbi Cohen might scold. Today, any mention of a rabbi and a hit man in the same sentence probably includes a priest and a bar as well — which is probably progress. As Rabbi Cohen observes, who wants to hear the same old stories? For those who don’t, there is Gangsterland.