Tod Goldberg is a busy man. When he’s not running UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program, he’s recording one of two podcasts, KCOD Coachella FM’s Open Book with author Maggie Downs and Literary Disco with writer Julia Pistell and actor Rider Strong; or he’s writing essays and fiction; or he’s making audiences laugh and gasp at literary festivals. Goldberg is genuinely curious about what makes people tick, whether that be what makes them commit crimes, what makes them post inane things on Twitter, or what makes their lives meaningful.
Goldberg’s Gangsterland series (Gangsterland, Gangster Nation, and the forthcoming short story collection The Low Desert: Gangster Stories) revolves around Chicago hit man Sal Cupertine, who kills an undercover FBI agent by mistake and hides in a temple in a Las Vegas suburb. Sal gets a new face and identity: Rabbi David Cohen. Sal isn’t Jewish, so he cobbles together a religious philosophy from Bruce Springsteen lyrics and bits of Jewish texts. He leads a life of contrast, tending to the needs of his congregation while operating a criminal enterprise. This is crime fiction with both levity and depth.
The stories in Goldberg’s upcoming Low Desert enlarge the Gangsterland world, exploring the lives and backstories of some of the ancillary characters in the series and expanding from Las Vegas and Chicago to the Salton Sea and the Pacific Northwest. As always, Goldberg’s work is marked by attentiveness to place, motivation, and consequences.
Alta caught up with Tod Goldberg via email to discuss his inspiration and obsessions.
EXCERPT FROM THE PROLOGUE OF GANGSTER NATION:
Peaches Pocotillo never got to kill anyone anymore. All those years he’d spent perfecting his craft had led to bigger and better things, which in this case meant a mid-level leadership position in the Native Mob, overseeing tribal gang consolidation and farming operations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, even into Nebraska. He had Native Gangster Disciples reporting to him, Native Vice Lords, Native Crips, Native Bloods, Peaches the one guy everyone listened to, the one guy who could get everyone to the table, the one guy who you didn’t want to cross, because, man, he used to kill people for nothing, son.
What central question does your work ask?
I’ve always been obsessed about identity, even when I didn’t know I was obsessed with it, but it turns out that every book I’ve written—even the two travel books I did about Las Vegas a million years ago—has, at its core, questions that go something like: What makes a good person become a bad person? How far can a person be pushed before they turn violent? Can we ever be the same people after we’ve walked away alive from a traumatic situation? These are essential tenets of noir fiction, of course, but lately I’ve found that even when I’m trying to write about normal, suburban people not embroiled in some long con, I end up finding what the essential Ponzi scheme of their existence is. It’s a cynical view of the world, I recognize, but it turns out that who we are is often ruled by opportunity and the moral consequences of taking said opportunity.
In my new book, The Low Desert, which comes out in February, if we make it there, I wrote a bunch of new stories and then also rewrote some older stories to fit them into the loose universe I’d created for myself, and what I found is that I’m still befuddled by the same questions, often years after I first asked them in my work.
How do you write about violence without allowing it to overtake you?
I’m answering these questions on one of the darkest nights in American history, our cities burning, the occupant of the White House just unloosed violence on his own people so he could get a photo op holding a book he hasn’t read in front of a church he doesn’t worship in, and the profundity of institutional and systemic racism has left me feeling both powerless and incandescent with rage.
I just told my wife, Wendy, “I could murder someone.” But the truth is, I abhor violence. It is the language of the weak.
And though I literally built the house I live in by writing about bad men with guns, my hope has always been to show that there is no good end for these kinds of people, that the better path is the one they didn’t take. There are no happy endings in my books or stories, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t satisfying endings, merely that I hope the stories I write convey a sense that there is a persistence of damage from the choices we make. And so violence doesn’t overtake me because I am a reasonable person, when I’m not at my computer. (Though sometimes my wife will say, “I need to speak to my husband, not a hit man,” and that’s when I know maybe I haven’t left the bad guy in my office.)
Do you listen to anything as you write?
Constantly. Eventually it becomes white noise, but when I sit down to write, I always put together a playlist of 20 to 30 songs to sort of set my mood for the day. Also, I listen to different artists or songs when I’m writing different characters in my books—my last several books have had more than one narrator—and then sometimes I play songs like they’re a soundtrack for the scene I’m writing. When I’m trying to get into a ruminative mood, I tend to play a lot of Jason Isbell or Lucinda Williams. When I’m writing the Rabbi David Cohen character in my Gangsterland books, I play a lot of Bruce Springsteen, because he has a tic where he quotes Springsteen and says it’s from the Talmud, because, in fact, no one knows the difference. When I’m trying to get revved up, it’s the Replacements or Drive-By Truckers or the Menzingers or Ceschi. When I need to be emotional, I queue up some Lori McKenna or the Delines. And then, when I need to do some gangster business, it’s Scarface and MC Ren and Dr. Dre and Tee Grizzley and SOB X RBE. But look, my last name is Goldberg and I write a lot about Jews, so who am I kidding: I am steady rockin’ the Beastie Boys and Neil Diamond until the grooves fall off the MP3s.
What have been your favorite discussions on Literary Disco, and why?
We’ve done over 170 episodes since 2013, so it’s sometimes hard to remember everything we’ve done, but I must say I’ve always really enjoyed talking about books from our childhood that we’ve reread—Flowers in the Attic, The Hardy Boys, Sweet Valley High, The Babysitters Club—because invariably they’re absolutely terrible, and so that’s always a fun conversation. But to be honest, the best discussion I think we ever had was when we read Columbine with a bunch of high school kids and had them come on the show. We had a great conversation with these young people where they were each amazingly candid. This was shortly after Parkland, and so it was a particularly raw time, and yet these teenagers were vulnerable and forthcoming. It felt like we did something important, even if it was just for those kids, on that day.
What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
Lately? Great TV has really inspired me. Just in the last few years, I’ve found more inspiration from shows like Watchmen, Fauda, Bosch, Unbelievable, and The Americans than I have from books, which is unusual, since I read an awful lot. I recently rewatched The Wire, and I still contend it is the best TV show that has ever been made.
I’ve also found myself reading more poetry. I’m a big fan of Natalie Diaz—her first book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, has been on my nightstand for years and really helped me understand how to do some things with language in my nonfiction work that I might have been afraid of doing before—and of Matthew Zapruder, whose new book, Father’s Day, knocked me out. I heard Gregory Pardlo read a few years ago and have become a big fan of his, too—I loved Digest so much. I’ve felt pretty distracted since, oh, November of 2016, and [I find that] bingeing TV and reading poetry do the same thing to my brain, inexplicably.
Give us the elevator pitch for your next book.
If you don’t hit my floor button, some bad people will bury you in the desert.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Rishi Reddi for Alta Asks.
- By Tod Goldberg
- Counterpoint Press, 368 pages, $16.95