Everybody has a reason. That’s the tragedy, as Balzac saw it. Elmore Leonard’s fiction operates from a more observational yet still universal idea: shit tends to go wrong, not because of Blofeld-like masterminds stroking white cats in the sanctuary of sleek leather chairs, but because of actual human beings so messed up or wounded they can barely walk to the toilet, let alone think straight. Combine those two trains of thought, and you have a formula for fiction. Throw in a desolate and often despairing sense of place, and there’s Tod Goldberg’s new book, The Low Desert, a collection of terrific stories, mostly set around Palm Springs or Las Vegas (the terrain of his novel Gangsterland), that raises other fundamental questions. Such as: Are we the sum of our worst motives and thoughts, our worst days? And: Is the protagonist actually going to survive?
More often than not, the answer comes down to mazel, which, as David Cohen (Goldberg’s hit man turned rabbi) explains, means fate and luck, coming from “around. Wherever you find God.”
Even looking for God is a choice, a matter of character, and Goldberg’s creations don’t always find that mercy. Some are just bozos who go mulishly their own way. Goldberg keeps them on their toes. Watch out if, as in “The Royal Californian,” you meet a “guy dressed as a clown sitting at the bar” because clowns, like Chekhov’s gun, are likely to turn up again before the action is done.
In “Goon Number Four,” a mercenary/hit man named Blake Webster returns from his latest bout of ultra-violence in Dubai and, ready to retire and change his life, takes courses at the local community college. Blake keeps a great deal of cash in casino chips. “He needed to move a quarter of a million dollars, he didn’t need to bother with a wire transfer,” Goldberg writes. All the bombing he’s lived through has left him with “low-grade tinnitus.” He’s fussy, obsessive, a guy who arrives early for class, “because when you’re a goon, you recon.” Smart! He also brings a giant knife, and when his teacher, Professor Rhodes—a.k.a. Dusty Roads, a local DJ—asks what he does, he answers, “Goon. Assassin. Private security. Depends on the assignment.” Dusty, of course, thinks he’s joking, christens him Blake Danger, and advises him to find his joy.
Blake finds his joy, all right, taking it upon himself to solve the professor’s problems, scaring the campus cop who’s stalking her, burning down a yogurt shop in Coachella Valley because a kid who works there gave her a black eye, and leaving piles of casino chips in Dusty’s car. Then, he turns it all into a podcast: “All those years, his job was to be silent, and now he was up front, making things happen, not waiting for someone else to order him into action. He wasn’t just the guy behind the action anymore. He was the action man now.”
This is pure fun, just prose bliss, as well as a hilarious ode to the life value of teaching. Another story, “Professor Rainmaker,” echoes that perspective, focusing on William Cooperman, a disappointed water boffin forced to teach Introduction to Hydrology at Cal State Fullerton. But that’s a sideline, really. Mostly Cooperman grows weed. “It occurred to Cooperman,” Goldberg tells us, “that working in academia and working in the drug trade weren’t all that different: people expected a certain level of punctuality, which he thought was a really bent business model. If any two fields demanded fluidity, it was academia and drug trafficking.”
Cooperman understands that ripples might eventually become the tsunamis that destroy you. He’s slithery but nimble, unlike Tania, the aging cocktail waitress who centers “Palm Springs” and “Pilgrims,” two of my favorite stories here. Goldberg sets up the character: “She’d worked her entire life bringing people drinks and along the way had adopted a child who ran away from her, and here she was, going to visit her incarcerated husband. A man she’d only kissed once, on the day of their marriage.”
In “Palm Springs,” we see her go on a date that’s not quite a failure, with a younger guy to whom she “gave up too much”—not sex but raw emotion. Tania’s vulnerable and stuck, unable to get past the fact that her daughter walked out on her. In “Pilgrims,” she tells Don, the murderer-husband she barely knows, about the book she’s reading, a history of the Pilgrims and their travails. “Fifty-seven years had come and gone in Tania’s life,” Goldberg reflects, “and to what end? This day? This life? All this time looking for a bit of clarity and it was here, in a prison, all the time. ‘You wouldn’t believe,’ Tania says again, ‘what they went through to survive.’ ”
Goldberg, who can rattle off one-liners like a stand-up, strikes a somber tone of loss throughout The Low Desert. In “Mazel,” a no-nonsense FBI agent, determined all her life to rely on hard work and not luck, tries to deal with the randomness of a cancer death sentence: “Tomorrow, she had an appointment to walk the cemetery with the rabbi, find her happily-ever-after home, while she waited for the resurrection. Or whatever Jews believed in. She hadn’t gotten that far in the Torah.” Later, with the wind “blowing into eternity” strands of the hair she’s losing, she returns to the same cemetery. “All she could make out was the moon, which was no comfort,” Goldberg notes. “Stars had a much more compelling story. They were proof that dead things could still be remembered.”
Some stories, such as this one, connect to the world of Gangsterland. Others stand alone. It pays to read in sequence. The Salton Sea, created by false accident in 1905 when the Colorado River breached a dike, provides another linking metaphor. “There’d been plans going back to the late-1800s to re-wild the Salton Basin, the dreamland of developers, the United States government, your basic grifters, and now oil companies,” recalls an oil security guy named Morris in the title story, which is a period piece, mingling murder and classic land grab in the manner of Ross Macdonald. Morris is warned that “the world’s a shit can…. Don’t go kicking the can.”
California’s always Chinatown, and in a later story, “The Salt,” Morris takes a drive into the past, thinking about killing himself but knowing he won’t, knowing also that he can’t quite make amends. “The Salton Sea,” Goldberg reflects, “is receding back into memory, revealing with each inch another year, another foundation, another hand that pulls from the sand and grasps at the dead air.”
These stories play genres with an expert’s hand, and a sometimes surprising sad music.