Longtime mafia hit man Sal Cupertine knows that once somebody “dictates the terms of your survival … you’re a dead man.” By that measure it would seem that Sal, the protagonist in Tod’s Goldberg’s wise and witty new novel, Gangsterland (Counterpoint), is as dead as them come.
After being set up by his mob-boss cousin to make a drug deal with three federal agents -- “Donnie Brascos,” as he calls them -- Sal murders those agents to avoid being captured, and is thereafter (for his own good) swept out of Chicago and sent to Las Vegas, the city that keeps “meth hours” and where a newspaper column reports on gangsters like “they’re members of a boy band.” Sal’s given a new face and a stack of texts on Judaism, and is told by his handlers (owners, really -- it seems cousin Ronnie sold him to the crooked Rabbi Kales and his even more crooked son-in-law, strip-club owner Bennie Savone) that if he wants to live he is now going to be “Rabbi David Cohen.” Resilient, and with a wife and son back in Chicago to whom he plans one day to return, Cupertine/Cohen gets the message. In the meantime, the FBI is calling him dead a bit too hastily, and a renegade ex-fed, whose poor planning was somewhat responsible for the massacre of those three other agents, sets about to “clear his name.” Cohen sits tight and tries to figure the angles as a new member of the “Kosher Nostra.”
Rabbi Kales attempts to inculcate Cohen into his faith in order to make this whole arrangement work. And at some levels Cohen connects, seeing his choice of obedience to a crime family that considers him an expendable commodity, always looking over his shoulder for a gun barrel, as farcical when compared to the existential plight of the Jews -- “pursued for being born,” as Kales tells Cohen. In the criminal world Cohen left behind, human relations is a “Ponzi scheme.” No one is trusted and all are eventually betrayed, killed by anyone who thinks they might be a threat or a potential witness.
Kales knows Cohen is a horrible man who’s made “terrible choices.” But Cohen is a jaded observer of human nature, and he knows that for Kales to have been given his own congregation by his criminal son-in-law, he had to make some pretty egregious choices himself; the means will always justify the ends, especially where criminals are involved. “If you did a little bad for a greater good and the only people who got hurt were people who decided to get involved with a bunch of gangsters, wasn’t that a net positive?” Cohen ponders. Of course it was. And some of the choices Kales has made allow Cupertine/Cohen to return to the game of being a criminal and making money, which is what he does best other than killing people. Much to Cohen’s surprise, Kales’ family-run funeral home also happens to be a crematorium for mafia murder victims and an illegal organ-harvesting operation. A professional killer could make himself of use there.
Bennie Savone gets the new Rabbi Cohen as “Jew’d up as possible” before presenting him to the congregation. For a stone-cold killer, Cohen doesn’t do a bad job at his unexpected new job, even when he’s counseling Bennie’s wife, who knows her husband is an outright crook and is ready to leave him. Cohen begins at times, in offhand ways, to see the world as a series of Talmudic parables, and his new learning “fill[s] his brain with whole new pathways of thought,” whether he likes it or not. Cohen hasn’t gone soft, just perhaps a bit more introspective; but as a hardened realist, he still views his new perspective as a bit “ludicrous.”
In Goldberg’s story, wisdom is tempered with humor and irony, as when Cohen makes up for his lack of book-learning and quotable, comforting tidbits from holy texts by drawing on popular-culture sources, finding “that if he paraphrased Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen it generally had the same effect.”
In Las Vegas it’s not difficult to see that many crimes are not immune from the ameliorating vicissitudes of time. “You didn’t need a gun to rob someone anymore, you just needed a spreadsheet,” says Cohen. Las Vegas to him is now a theme park, he thinks -- Gangsterland, where tourists put on gold chains and black silk shirts and ape Tony Soprano. Cohen isn’t going legit -- just maybe a bit more legit. And with cousin Ronnie in touch, and hopes of getting Bennie and Kales out of the way fast, he begins to plot the rest of his life. ◊
READ MORE: “The Best Place to Hide a Body? Just Ask Writer Tod Goldberg,” by Michael Shaub (Los Angeles Times).