Avid readers may already be acquainted with the wiseguy at the center of Tod Goldberg’s recently released crime novel, Gangsterland (Counterpoint, $26). Sal Cupertine—a Chicago Mafia hitman who’s hiding out in Summerlin disguised as a rabbi—made his debut in “Mitzvah,” a story Goldberg wrote for the 2008 anthology Las Vegas Noir. In fact, it was Vegas Seven’s own Jarret Keene (along with co-editor Todd James Pierce), who asked Goldberg to write a story set in Summerlin—where Goldberg lived in the late 1990s. Goldberg has since moved to La Quinta, California, where he directs the MFA writing program at the University of California, Riverside, but his Las Vegas connection is still strong. He’s written for the now-defunct publications Las Vegas Mercury and Las Vegas City Life, and he reviews books for Las Vegas Weekly. Goldberg’s literary credits include 12 previous books: crime novels, story collections and the Burn Notice series based on the television show. Add to that list Gangsterland, a mob story with all the usual treats—thugs, rackets, bullets to the brain and … a little 11th-century Jewish scripture.
How has Sal’s story evolved to fit the longer novel form?
“Mitzvah” was, effectively, the end of the story, while Gangsterland covers the entire course of actions that brought Sal to Las Vegas, and how and why he ended up hiding out as a rabbi.
You combine outrageous fiction with very real Nevada communities, especially Summerlin. How do you think readers will respond?
The challenge with books about Las Vegas has always been how one captures a place that seems, on its face, entirely unreal, even to those of us who live—or in my case, lived—here. My hope is that locals will remember what it was like in the late 1990s, when the city was at war with its own image, when the boundless hubris of building thousands of homes before there was anyone to live in them seemed like a good idea, and how we still romanticized criminals as being good for the business of a city.
Have you had any objections to marrying the mob to Jewish religion?
Not yet. I think the fact that I’m Jewish probably mitigates this. I don’t have a lot of faith in organized religion, but I do have faith in searching for higher meaning. And Sal doesn’t become Jewish per se, but he begins to understand a world outside of himself, that his own existential thoughts aren’t one-of-a-kind … that if he thought he had problems, well, he should check in with the 11th-century Jews. That’s not something anyone might quibble with.
Gangsterland transcends the typical mob story by including religion and meditations on morality. Did you feel you were taking a chance doing this?
I did feel I was taking a chance. There’s not much new under the sun as it relates to the mob—at least not the one we know traditionally. Casinos are multinational corporations now. Operation G-Sting revealed what everyone already suspected about the strip-club business in Las Vegas. The drugs are being handled by the cartels. Whitey Bulger is in prison. John Gotti is dead. The Sopranos dispelled a lot of myths about how glamorous the job might be. And now, to be an effective organized crime syndicate, you’re better off employing hackers than leg-breakers. But that was the challenge, to ask how an enterprising crook might con people out of money, and I needed to look no further than people’s relationship with their God and the business of death.
Can we expect a sequel? A movie?
I hope you can expect a sequel. I wrote it with the intention of revisiting some of the characters. You’re more likely to see a TV show than a movie: CBS optioned the story for Timberman-Beverly, the folks who make Justified, Masters of Sex and Elementary, which excites me to no end.
Book signing, 1-5 p.m. Sept. 20,the retail store in the Mob Museum, 300 Stewart Ave., 702-229-2734, TheMobMuseum.org.
Book talk and signing, 3-4:30 p.m. Sept. 21, Jewel Box Theater at Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Rd., 702-507-3459, LVCCLD.org.