Gangsters, rabbis, and September 11, 2001 might seem like an odd combination, but they all play a part in New York Times bestseller Tod Goldberg’s latest funny noir thriller Gangster Nation. Like the first in the series, Gangster Nation is about a guy in a bad situation because the choices he’s made haven’t turned out well. And isn’t that always where a good story starts?
A good story is key
“My first goal, always, is to tell an entertaining story,” Goldberg said. As he puts it, a man in the midst of chaos of his own making and trying to get out alive is the essence of noir fiction. “But beneath that, it’s also about the nature of crime in American society, about the nexus of criminality and legality, about how the government and religious organizations and organized crime end up sharing many of the same traits.”
Goldberg’s main character is a mob hitman pretending to be rabbi. “Trying to be funny but not cartoonish is a major challenge. If you do it poorly, it reads mawkish. Hopefully, that’s not the case with what I’m doing with this character of Sal Cupertine/Rabbi David Cohen, since another thing I’m attempting to show – on a character-level – is that spiritual enlightenment is possible in even the worst people.”
The sequel conundrum for Gangster Nation
The ending of Gangsterland left open the door for at least one sequel. Goldberg said he knew he wanted to use the events of September 11, 2001 as a way to trap his hitman/rabbi in Las Vegas. However, he wasn’t entirely sure what would happen afterwards—until he attended the Writers’ Police Academy in Wisconsin.
“The Academy is a fantastic instructional event where writers get to work alongside law-enforcement professionals,” Goldberg said. “I learned about some of the Native gangs working in that area and their connections to both cartels and Chicago organized crime outfits. After that, I began to research the genesis of these things…which then set my imagination running wild and led me to ditch one idea for another a few hundred pages into the book.”
The final result is a story about a hit man, Sal Cupertine, and his transformation into a holy man, Rabbi David Cohen. “It shows how the choices he made have reverberated into countless lives. His wife’s life. His son’s. The relatives of the people he’s killed. I always try to make sure that if someone dies in one of my books that it’s dealt with seriously, that there’s always a ripple from the event, that neither do the dead merely evaporate nor does a killer not hold something from the act of killing. So Gangster Nation also is about the historical effects of dirty business in America…and there’s a lot of that.”
A series widely read
Goldberg said he’s not a terribly religious person, but in the process of writing both Gangsterland and Gangster Nation he researched Judaism and what his character would learn when becoming a rabbi. “I needed that so when he is challenged by something in his fake life, I’d have a general sense of what he’d know as a rabbi at that point in time. The result is that I now have a lot of Talmudic wisdom floating around in my head at all times…paired up with lots of inventive ways to kill people. It’s a difficult proposition, at times, to turn off when I’m shopping in Target for deodorant.”
One of the surprises for Goldberg was how his books have been read and enjoyed by actual rabbis. He said, “I hear from them pretty frequently, and I think the moral questions I raise in the books are compelling to them. I also suspect that rabbis, like anyone else, find it entertaining when their profession is turned into something a tad more exciting than what it is.”
In the books, Goldberg loosely based a temple on one in Las Vegas just up the street from where he lived many years ago. “I put my temple on the same street, but it has actually nothing whatsoever to do with the temple itself. I originally wrote about the temple and this hit man/rabbi in a short story called ‘Mitzvah’ which came out in an anthology in 2008.
“I never bothered to look to see what the name of the actual rabbi was at the temple in Las Vegas until after Gangsterland came out and the rabbi himself filmed a very funny video of himself asking how his secret life had been discovered…which is when I found out his name is, in fact, Rabbi Cohen! He is, fortunately, a very nice and understanding man with a great sense of humor.”
Goldberg’s other hat — educator
Goldberg is the founder of the Low Residency MFA program at the University of California Riverside, which he describes as one of the great joys of his life. “So many of our students have gone on to tremendous success and it makes me incredibly proud. I don’t have children, but I do have these students who have entrusted me with this thing, to teach them how to have a life in the arts, and that’s a weight that I carry. I don’t want to let those students down. I want them to get the chances I got when I was starting out. So everything we do is geared toward real world success, not merely being the best workshop writer in the world.”
In terms of his own writing, Goldberg believes teaching creative writing forces him to pay attention to the craft, to read widely, and to forgive himself for writing poorly when he’s tired or stressed out. He said, “When you’re surrounded by other writers all the time, these issues are there for someone every day, and thus I think it helps me stay sane. I’m not the only one feeling X, Y, or Z, which is a relief.”
Learn more about Tod Goldberg at todgoldberg.com
Book & a Latte Contest
What: This month, Tod is giving away two soft cover copies of “Gangster Nation” and I’m adding two $5.00 Starbucks gift cards. Two random entries will be chosen as winners. Each winner will receive a book and a gift card.
How to enter: Choose one or more of the options below. Each option gives you an additional chance to win.
Who can enter: This contest is only open to continental US residents over 18 years of age.
Winners: Selected winners must claim prizes within 72 hours of notification. Verification of entries: All winning entries are subject to verification.