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September 11, 2014

Book Notes - Tod Goldberg "Gangsterland"

Gangsterland

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tod Goldberg's Gangsterland is a clever and compulsively readable comic novel.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Clearly influenced by the great Elmore Leonard, Goldberg puts his own dry comic spin on the material…Clever plotting, a colorful cast of characters, and priceless situations make this comedic crime novel an instant classic."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Tod Goldberg's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Gangsterland:


As a teen, I was something of an inveterate mix-tape maker. If you were dating me between 1984-1990, you might still be in possession of one of these tapes and might still have questions concerning why I found so many songs obviously about killing yourself romantic, but you must understand that I didn't know "The Ledge" by the Replacements wasn't about, you know, diving headlong into love, that it wasn't a metaphor for anything. Also, I'm sorry for making all of the B-sides a continuous loop of "I Melt With You." I recognize that might have seemed a tad obsessive.

Fortunately for all involved, I've been married since 1998 and thus I've stopped making mix-tapes for women and complete strangers – I can't tell you how many times I told people I met on vacations, or in the mall, or at drunken frat parties, or who wandered into the record store where I worked, "Dude, give me your address, I'll make you a tape!" – but then Spotify came along and re-awoke in me my primal need to cull music together. I've got something like 100 different playlists, some public, some horribly private (I just can't let the world in to see my playlist consisting entirely of Rick Springfield songs), including one called "What I've Been Listening to While I Write" which I started about six months into writing Gangsterland. The playlist contains roughly two hundred of the most thoroughly depressing songs ever recorded, including "Depression" by The Dead Tongues, one George Michael song, one Neil Diamond song (more on that in a moment), nine Replacements songs, one song about rewriting ("Rewrite" by Paul Simon), and one song that I don't think I've ever liked, "Ashes to Ashes" by Faith No More, that I can only imagine I put on by mistake when looking for the David Bowie song of the same name.

I'd go through periods where I added songs to the list and then long stretches when I wouldn't, because I was busy making other playlists, like "Drunk Songs" or, for a nice change, "The Most Depressing Songs Ever," which I would also listen to on constant repeat while I wrote. (My wife, bless her, probably has a playlist of her own on Spotify called "Songs I Hate That Tod Played 50,000 Times While Writing That Damn Book For Two and a Half Years.")

Of those two hundred songs, only a few have really anything to do with the book itself, apart from putting me into the particular mood I needed to be in while writing (contemplative, hopeless, etc.), which is different than the moods my characters needed to be in, since most of my characters spend the course of the book in a highly agitated or murderous state, and if I'm in a highly agitated or murderous state I find it hard to write fiction. (Highly caffeinated is fine. Highly agitated and murderous I just want to write essays about how my parents screwed me up.) So there's only a few crossovers here…which makes me think I should do a playlist of crossover hits…At any rate, as this is a book about the Mafia, and about Jews, and about the FBI, and about Las Vegas, and about Chicago, a lot of the songs that would be appropriate for your listening enjoyment might seem a little odd, which is to say: A lot of songs about guns.

"Man With A Gun" by Jerry Harrison: These lyrics pretty much encapsulate everything I've ever written: Pretty girl young man old man/Man with a gun/Two people in love/The rules do not apply/To people in love. In the case of Gangsterland, specifically, however, it was also the challenge I kept in my head with creating the character of Sal Cupertine, a Chicago Mafia hitman who takes on the persona of Rabbi David Cohen, a rabbi at a thriving temple in Las Vegas: How do I make a killer empathetic? And I kept coming back to Jerry Harrison's edict: for a man with a gun, or people in love, the rules do not apply. I've long thought that this song would end up as the theme to a TV show (it did appear in the film Something Wild a million years ago)…maybe it will just be the one that plays in my head.

"Brilliant Disguise" by Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen plays a role (or his songs do, anyway) in the book rather directly, a plot point I won't divulge here, but of all his songs, this one is actually my favorite, both for what it's about – the dawning realization that the person you've married is not the person you thought you married and that we all have different selves – and then for something I heard Springsteen say about the song years later, which is that it means something different to him now when he sings it with someone he loves (namely his current wife) and that meaning changes. That stuck with me. There's much to do in Gangsterland about meaning changing and how one lives inside a new identity, even when your true self is fighting (a bit literally, in this case) to get out.

"Longfellow Serenade" by Neil Diamond. One of the great mysteries of Judaism is Neil Diamond. As a people, even if we don't like Neil Diamond's music, Jews are nevertheless required to know many of his songs and be able to sing them at any moment. It's actually in the Talmud. As your average pork-eating Jew, I was raised on a steady diet of Mr. Diamond's work (to say nothing of Barbra Streisand) and I am unabashedly a fan. I've long imagined that one of the hardest things about converting to Judaism would be the wholesale embracing one must do of Mr. Diamond, because if you're not raised on him I imagine he can seem…you know…not good, which I touch on some in Gangsterland. (I would have touched on it even more, but my editor thought that my constant and unremitting series of Neil Diamond jokes weren't as funny as I did…alas…one day I'll put out a director's cut consisting solely of my super-funny asides about The Jazz Singer.) Of course, no one on planet Earth is unaware of "Sweet Caroline" and I might suggest that a good sum of the world has even encountered the existential conundrum that is Mr. Diamond singing Christmas songs, so I thought it would be good to pick more of a deep track, as it were (it was a big hit in 1974, when I was three, which means I've been singing this song to myself for forty damn years), but one which also so happens to show up in the book. I've always been drawn to story songs and in this one Neil sings about a man who woos a woman by reciting Longfellow to her, which is weird since Longfellow wasn't exactly a romantic – I have a hard time imagining anyone falling in love with a person after having them read "The Song of Hiwatha" or "Paul Revere's Ride" aloud – and yet I've always quite admired this tune. But more importantly, one of Longfellow's finest poems – and another one that I can't imagine serenading a person with – is "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport," which comes to play a minor role in the book, too.

"Sin City" by Uncle Tupelo. This is actually a cover of an old Flying Burrito Brothers song, and it's not even about Las Vegas, it's about Los Angeles, but I've always associated it with Las Vegas for the obvious reasons of the title and also for the opening lines: This old town is filled with sin it'll swallow you in/If you've got some money to burn/Take it home right away, you've got three years to pay/But Satan is waiting his turn. The song also sounds like a spiritual, a reckoning with a God you might not believe in, but who you don't want to piss off regardless.

"Checkout Time in Vegas" by Drive-By Truckers. The opening lines of this great ode to bad luck could be a novel in itself: A bloody nose, empty pockets, a rented car with a trunk full of guns/It ain't true that the sun don't rise in Vegas/I've seen it once…Part of my goal in writing Gangsterland was an attempt to capture Las Vegas without ever going to the Strip, and to deal with the idea that all kinds of people come to town to change their luck, not just gamblers, so sometimes that means they end up in the suburbs selling real estate, a con in itself. The gangster culture the city was built upon permeates every aspect of life and the ideas the Truckers espouse here, that you might be the guy rolling out of town covered in blood, with a trunk full of guns, is one I deeply admire.

"Relatively Easy" by Jason Isbell. I could probably just put the collected works of Jason Isbell down on this list and be done with it, but this song in particular, where he says I broke the law boys/ Shooting out the windows of my loft boys/ When they picked me I made a big noise/ Everything to blame except my mind kept ringing in my head as I was working on the last third of the book. The idea that when we make bad decisions the first place we look is invariably outside of ourselves, when we probably should be examining our own minds, is something that, as I've grown older, has become more and more apparent. It's particularly relevant to the characters in the book, many of whom are stuck in corrupt systems that they initially think have nothing to do with their own doings, that all of their actions are beyond their control.

"So You Want To Be A Gangster" by Too $hort. Some wise words from Too $hort: You got it all wrong/Gangsters don't live that long. I'm no sociologist, but this just seems like a very smart assessment regarding the life expectancy of those who choose to go into the murder business.

"1%" by Jane's Addiction. True fact: I appear, for about a millisecond, in the video for Jane's Addiction's "Stop" – if you pause the video at exactly forty-nine seconds in, you'll see me above Dave Navarro's guitar, wearing a blue Steussy mock-turtleneck (it was the 90s, people). At any rate, "1%" is a song I've loved since prior to my mock-turtleneck phase. I used to chant the chorus – The gang/ And the government/No different – from the mosh pit, feeling like I was experiencing come great truth. I recognize now that the perception of great truths are more easily discovered when one is drunk on Mickey's and have been punched in the face over and over again in the middle of a swirl pit, but nevertheless this song was on heavy rotation as I wrote about the shades of difference between the gang and the government.

"Short Change Hero" by The Heavy. Every single scene in this book that collapses time, features a murder, and speeds by on the page? This song is playing in the background. It's the perfect anti-hero theme song, really, with its repeating chorus of This ain't no place for no hero/ This ain't no place for no better man, even though part of the truth of this book (or at least my attempts at truth) is that no one kills someone and gets away with it emotionally untouched, unless they're actual psychopaths.

"Partners in Crime" by Lucinda Williams. A cover of an old Slim Dunlap song, it's probably not literally about being criminals, but it's a boozy barroom ode to finding kinship of the dubious sort, blowing out of town, and not letting anyone take you out alive. Like Jason Isbell, I could also just list every single song Lucinda Williams has ever recorded here and it would be an accurate soundtrack. In fact…

"Are You Alright?" by Lucinda Williams. This plaintive song about a person who has disappeared, both literally and emotionally, could play on a loop through Gangsterland's prologue and epilogue, setting up both the specific circumstances of the novel's beginning and the peculiar circumstances of the novel's end. Lucinda Williams is one of my favorite singer/songwriters and this song is one I return to time and again to put me in the mood to write, a simple song about loss that takes the listener into the haunted part of the heart.

"Looking Down the Barrel Of A Gun" the Beastie Boys. I'm mad at my desk and I'm writing all curse words. That's about the size of it right there.


Tod Goldberg and Gangsterland links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia page

Kirkus review
Los Angeles Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review

Palm Springs Life interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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