Tod Goldberg may have stumbled on to something without even being aware of it. Mr. Goldberg is an author known for several fictional books based on the USA Network TV series, Burn Notice and most recently his book Gangsterland. I read the review of Gangsterland in the New York Times in mid-December and was intrigued. Just a few days later I received the book as a Chanukah gift. This work of wicked fiction is all about the Mafia but is nothing like any Mafia book you ever read. It is loaded with street language and vicious scenarios, not for the squeamish, but it is a guilty pleasure read for many reasons. I do not usually write book reviews but after reading this book, I think that a review is in order.
In the book Sal Cupertine is a notorious hit man who impulsively wipes out three FBI agents and a confidential informant. As a form of punishment his cousin, the Chicago Mafia boss who operates a series of legal, albeit underhanded and deceitful, businesses along with some of the standard illegal forms of commerce the mob is known for, has Sal surreptitiously transferred to Las Vegas where he undergoes plastic surgery and spends six months learning to be, of all things, a Rabbi, a Reform one, but a Rabbi nevertheless. Upon completion of his transformation, he becomes a changed man, sensitive to the needs of his congregants in a vast new Jewish complex that is growing in the desert.
Of course, there is a nefarious plan afoot. Sal soon begins to understand why he has been treated to this life-altering reprieve, and it is not simply because he is blessed with a wonderful memory. Sal is changed but not so changed that he has given up his trade. In fact, he has learned to make both the role of assassin and that of Rabbi work for him to gain both spiritual prominence and cash. He learns to accept the public role of a rabbi, one that is completely anathema to hit men, listen to people who are suffering all the while serving up pain to those whom he has orders to deal with.
There are layers of themes in this book. As Charlie Rubin who wrote the Times review of Gangsterland suggested, if you allow yourself to drift back to childhood you can envision that one Hebrew teacher or Rebbe that you wouldn’t have minded taking out a hit on. There is also the dark humor that continuously rears up throughout as we see Sal’s transformation into Rabbi Cohen and how he makes a sort of peace with it, all while desperately missing his wife and son back in Chicago who know not where he is. So, it is also a book about family, personal, social and Mafia or religious life and how to take care of all of their competing needs.
There is, however, one theme in this book that can be easily overlooked – but it should not be because it is a highly instructive one. When good guys make small mistakes, such as the ones made by an FBI agent, the bad guys capitalize on them. If we are going to be successful, we have to be smart, aware and have some insight.
This is a story about wise guys not wise men but it is often hard to distinguish between the two. The subject portrayals are all of people who could very well be real, though highly dramatized. I have to admit that there were points in the book when I thought about the banned book The Making of a Gadol not for any reason other than we are all human and therefore subject to error. Those errors may be small, inconsequential or they may be large. It matters little in the end – small errors result in death, large errors result in a lot of money and death – if we do not make the changes necessary to turn our lives around.
Yet one more layer here is significant. Tod Goldberg did not write about the issue of Daat Torah in this book but then again he may have inadvertently done so; not in any religious or spiritual sense but from the perspective of how we choose and believe our spiritual leaders and advisors. The senior rabbi in Gangsterland, Rabbi Kales, is not an assassin but he is involved in highly questionable financial dealings with his son in law who is himself a local Mafioso in Vegas. In an era when it seems that hardly a day goes by when a religious leader is not featured in the media for some illegal, felonious act it is wise to consider what motivates us. Sometimes it takes an overstated amusing harshly worded fictionally layered account to cause us to pause and consider who we are where we are going and what is important to us.