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September 14, 2017

Book Notes - Tod Goldberg "Gangster Nation"

Gangster Nation

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tod Goldberg's Gangster Nation is a devilishly dark, clever, and funny sequel to his novel Gangsterland.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Boasting less outlandish humor than Gangsterland but far more ambition, the sequel conducts extended discussions on how America is defined by crime, boldly linking gangland violence to the 9/11 attacks…but the second time around, Sal/David’s mixing of Talmudic citations with Bruce Springsteen lyrics is still very funny. The sacred gets the stuffing kicked out of it by the profane in this wild and sometimes-shocking novel."

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

Writing a sequel, it turns out, is hard.

Not hard like coal mining. Not hard like brain surgery. Not even hard like teaching kindergarten. I imagine those three jobs are harder than sitting at a desk and writing about people with guns, but of course all jobs, in some respect, are hard…particularly if you don’t want to do that job. In this case, I really wanted to do this job: I’ve been thinking about this Chicago Mob hitman, Sal Cupertine, who ends up hiding in Las Vegas as the Rabbi David Cohen since 2008, first in a short story called “Mitzvah” in my book of stories Other Resort Cities and then in the novel Gangsterland and now in Gangster Nation. Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be talking about Gangster Planet or Gangster Universe or Gangster Bio-Dome (if the next sequel takes a Pauly Shoreian turn, which I suppose could happen…no one thought Trump would be President, you know?) and I’ll understand better how to get my mind right to take on the task. The way I started this time around – apart from coming up with a story that did the things a good sequel is supposed to do, which is, generally: All the thing you liked about the first book, but better, and with different characters, but not too many different characters, because then, you know, no one will know what’s going on…but with enough different characters that people who didn’t read the first book won’t feel the absolute need to read the first book, which is some complicated math; so essentially I just tried to write The Empire Strikes Back and hoped for the best – was to listen to this giant playlist I’d made in 2012 & 2013 when I was working on Gangsterland, thinking that the soundtrack would stimulate some kind of muscle memory and suddenly every time I sat down, Rabbi David Cohen would be ready to take on the world, such as it was.

Turns out, that soundtrack just reminded me of how much anxiety and back pain I had when I was done with that first book. So I had to start from scratch. I did entertain the idea that maybe I’d make a playlist of sequel songs, just to prove to my reptile brain that the task at hand was possible. But it turns out, there’s not a lot of sequel songs, never mind good sequel songs. There’s Harry Chapin’s sequel to his song “Taxi” called, not helpfully, “Sequel” and I think we can all agree that’s not good. (You see, he was flying in his taxi and she was acting happy…and then in the sequel, well, it reverses itself.) There’s David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes” and I think we can all agree that was good. But then there’s the ilk of Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” and other such novelties. I soon came to realize that looking for these songs that might inspire me was, in fact, one of my long-held procrastination techniques and that if I didn’t go ahead and write this damn sequel, they’d soon ask me for their money back and I couldn’t very well skip out on this dream of mine. I’d have to find the soundtrack as things went along. Surely, there would be songs that spoke to me while I wrote a novel about an Italian Mob hitman pretending to be a rabbi in Las Vegas, who is being hunted by the FBI, hunted by an opportunistic Native Mob gangster named Peaches, hunted by an ex-FBI agent with a grudge, and pined for by his wife, who must hope her husband it still alive. Oh and also? Rabbi David Cohen needs to prepare a kid for his bar mitzvah and sometimes he gets the Talmud and Bruce Springsteen lyrics confused in his head.

Turns out? It all worked out okay. These songs helped.

“Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" by Run the Jewels. I wrote Gangster Nation between December of 2015 and April of 2017, which, as you may recall, was when people were running for president and being elected president and then being president, which means I spent a lot of those months standing in front of my television screaming…and then I’d walk into my office, turn on the computer, fire up Spotify, and get to work. I have a playlist called, happily, BREAK SHIT, which I play when I’m enraged. (I suspect a professional would suggest that I play music that doesn’t exacerbate the situation, but fuck that Enya shit.) I would also play this song when I was writing particularly violent scenes. I would also play it in the tub, just soaking and forgetting all of my problems. It may play at my funeral and I may play it while we light candles next Hanukkah.

“Lettin ‘Em Know” by Scarface. Part of what I’ve attempted to do in both Gangsterland and Gangster Nation is play with the tropes of the genre, to write a mob novel that points out the ludicrous nature of mob novels, mob movies, and the very ethos of gangsters in all media. So I find myself listening to a lot of gangster rap from the era I’m writing about – the late 90s and early 2000s – and remembering how people thought anyone who rapped about being a gangster was a gangster, as if music wasn’t merely a persona. Scarface has always been one of my favorite rappers: he’s an utterly profane, but entirely deft, storyteller, and his rhymes are complex. But also? You play Scarface really loudly in your house or your car and by the end of one of his songs, you think, You know, maybe I will go ahead and jack a motherfucker for his cocaine. But I would not advise attempting to jack Mr. Scarface, as he notes in this song, “So don't come in my face with that motherfucking boy shit/Never coming soft with that love, peace and joy shit/Mister, Mister Scarface, the real deal McCoy shit.”

“The Gunslinger” by Shooter Jennings. This is a six and half minute song that starts out as an acoustic country cliché about a guy coming in off a train with guns and a bad past…which I can get behind…and then, about fifteen seconds later that turns into a psychedelic-country-gangster-rap-Sergio Leone-brokenhearted bad ass-anthem…and then three minutes in, the sax shows up like you’re in Memphis, but hopped up on trucker speed…and you realize that Shooter Jennings is taking all the genres he can imagine and putting them into one song about a man who might kill you because of his broken heart…and then…around four minutes in, it’s a full-on saxophone solo into a dark oblivion. That’s pretty much what I’ve been trying to do with both Gangsterland and Gangster Nation: mash up the genres, so that you find yourself laughing when you should be crying and maybe crying for the bad guys, not the good guys, and asking yourself just why that’s happening.

“I’ll Be You” by the Replacements. This is not my favorite song by the Replacements. I don’t think it’s anyone’s favorite song by the Replacements, which makes the fact that it was their most popular song one of those unusual quirks that doomed the Replacements. At any rate…it is, nevertheless, a song about wishes unfulfilled, a dream too tired to come true, as the lyrics go. Gangster Nation is about those things, too, but also it’s about mirrored lives, so I’d put this song on when I started to feel lost while writing (and because I listen to the Replacements pretty much every single day), so that Paul Westerberg could remind me what I was writing about: “You be me for a while/I’ll be you.”

“Wreck You” by Lori McKenna. My poor wife Wendy. I can get a little obsessive about songs. I’ll listen to the same one over and over and over again while I’m writing a chapter if it manages to put my mind into the space it needs to be, emotionally. And it turned out that playing “Wreck You” by Lori McKenna was what I needed whenever I wrote from Sal/Rabbi Cohen’s wife Jennifer’s point of view. The truth is that she’s my favorite character in both books and as Gangster Nation unwound over 18 months of writing, it became clear to me that she was going to have much bigger role than in the previous book. In the final version, forty of the book’s three hundred and sixty pages belong in her voice, which means my wife heard “Wreck You” about five hundred times. Part of it has to do with this great part:

Every now and then after work
I don't go straight home
I might sit out by the lake and wonder
I can almost see the face of a little blue eyed girl
And the boy who thought he knew everything about her

It’s not terribly profound on the page, as if it’s a poem, but as McKenna sings it, you hear the longing and the missing for who people used to be, before whatever gets between people – real life, I suppose – imposes its will. In a novel ultimately about the false identities we all have, that section of the song really resounded with me as I worked. But in the movie that exists in my mind as I write, I heard this song playing in the background of all of her scenes, except…

“Something About What Happens When We Talk” by Lucinda Williams is actually mentioned, obliquely, as a song playing on a juke box in a pivotal scene toward the end of the book. I love Lucinda Williams and it’s the line that opens this song – “If I had my way, I’d be in your town” – that is always so powerfully sad for me. No one gets their way all of the time.

“Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen. So, this goes to some of the anxiety about writing a sequel that I talked about above. A continuing joke – and, in fact, it’s a joke that I continued from writing the short story “Mitzvah” almost ten years ago – is that early on in Gangsterland Sal/Rabbi Cohen realizes that if he paraphrases Bruce Springsteen, his congregants really can’t tell the difference between The Boss and, you know, The Boss from the Torah. By the end of Gangsterland, it becomes something of a problem for the rabbi (which I’ll leave at that…), and so I didn’t know, exactly, if I was going to keep using this joke in Gangster Nation, but in fact there are a few times in the course of a man’s life, when they are both a hitman and a rabbi, when telling someone that everybody dies, baby, that's a fact, but maybe everything that dies some day comes back.

“Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It” by Ice Cube. This song is truly about the mythology of gangsters and why, for the average person, they think there’s something notable about them: “It's about my persona/ Ain't nothing like a man that can do what he wanna.” When you look at the history of crime fiction, invariably it’s during times of chaos and strife when anti-heroes become popular. If you’re feeling oppressed by the world, if you feel like the government is operating against you and your interests, the idea of being a gangster who can “do what he wanna” is pretty appealing. Of course, it also fails to take into consideration that there’s always a consequence, be it physical or emotional.

“Memo from Turner” by Mick Jagger. This is one of those great songs that reminds you that, for a time, Mick Jagger was the most dangerous man alive (at least to a segment of society). But this song has such a pronounced swagger and violence to it – there’s a higher body count in this song than in the Scarface song above, which says something, and it’s just as profane – that it actually makes you feel like you want to take a shower afterward. I liked to listen to this to get me in the mood to write a character in the book called Peaches, who I imagine being like an eel. This song is like an aquarium filled with eels, so many that they’re sliding out of the tank and onto the floor.

“Don’t Skip Out on Me” by Richmond Fontaine. In November of 2016, the morning after the election, I flew out to Reno to get an award. It’s a nice award. It really is. It meant a lot to me. On the same night, Willy Vlautin, the lead singer of Richmond Fontaine, one of my all-time favorite bands, and also a fantastic novelist, was getting an even better award. For months, I worried about meeting him because, well, I play his music constantly while I write, which means his voice sort of runs as a soundtrack in my mind, but specifically I always play him when writing about the desert in Nevada. Willy’s songs have always evoked the sense of the vast, open sadness I’ve felt when driving in the desert southwest: from my home near Palm Springs, to Las Vegas, to Arizona, and even up into Utah, through all of those little towns that sound like western novels and look like bad decisions – tilting satellite dishes propped against old cars, barns without doors, bars called the Lamplighter – and I’d been listening to this song, particularly, for months. When the time came to meet him, he was just the nicest guy in the world and I held it together…until I was up making a speech to accept the award and sang one of his songs back to him, and he was still the nicest guy in the world. Now you may wonder what this story has to do with this gangster Jew book I’ve written, other than the story of how I listen to this song a lot. And the answer is that I hadn’t written a decent word in the month before that night, and I don’t know if I wrote a decent word in the month after, but that night feels golden in my memory, and this song feels more hopeful to me now than it did before. I once heard Bruce Springsteen say something about songs taking on different meanings depending upon time and people and such. That meanings change, even if the words don’t, essentially. (In fact, in trying to remember this quote, it turns out I talked about it the last time I made a playlist, when discussing Bruce’s “Brilliant Disguise,” which is perpetually being playing in my house while I write, too.) And now when I hear this song, I remember a night in a lost month – a lost two months, really – and when Wily sings, “Don’t skip out without taking me” I think about the characters in my book who embody this wretched circumstance – even if you’re running away, please take me with you! – but also how on that night, away from home, everything feeling a little lost, my wife and I in a strange city feeling strange things, that song still rang in my head. And soon after, I got back to work. I didn’t skip out.

Tod Goldberg and Gangster Nation links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Gangsterland
The Real Book Spy interview with the author
Riverside Press-Enterprise profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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