Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Gangsterland

Gangsterland Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted very much to love this book. I have a particular interest for the way writers imagine Jews in organized crime, and I was drawn to Goldberg’s work by the comparisons people kept making between him and Elmore Leonard.

To be fair, Goldberg has mastered half the Leonard formula. He takes his characters in unlikely directions, and he doesn’t apologize for their quirks or for their capacity for depravity. They are who they are, and you can see glimmers of the beautiful amorality of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in the way Goldberg’s Sal Cupertine can calmly work through the logistics of killing someone and then fret over how to talk to his wife.

Unfortunately, Goldberg has missed the other half of Prof. Leonard’s example: Leonard was a genius at not writing “the parts of the story you want to skip.” Goldberg simply doesn’t have that deft a hand. At just under 400 pages, this is simply too long by at least a third and maybe by more than that. With a lot of the fat trimmed, this could more legitimately answer the glowing comparisons to the master.

And I have to be careful about the Jewish gangster matter. Yeah, I suppose it’s vaguely funny to create a complicated scenario in which a rabbi turns out to be a mob hitman. The idea, preposterous as it sounds, has been done far more often than anyone seems to realize, though. (Trust me – I have a running list of 120+ novels that deal with Jewish gangsters, most from the last 25 years.) It’s a premise only, not a work in itself, and I’d like to have seen Goldberg do more with it rather than ask us to take pleasure in the absurdity he creates.

I’ll acknowledge there is some real pleasure in the parallel narrative perspectives between Cupertine and FBI agent Jeff Hopper. The back and forth between them raises some legitimate questions about our culpability in sympathizing with Cupertine and, when you cross that with the sometimes clumsy but still at times thought-provoking Talmudic references, there is a fair bit to chew on here. I had stretches where I very much enjoyed the ethical dilemma Goldberg laid bare.

I could see giving Goldberg another chance, but I hope he’ll work toward more of that Leonard efficiency. If I see him come out with something in the 250 page range, I’ll take that as a good sign.

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