Gangsterland

This book is smart, and funny, and it surprised me in good ways. I shouldn’t be surprised, of course. If anyone can write a creative, funny, yet still emotionally evocative gangster novel, it’d be Tod Goldberg.

This novel was inspired by a short story that Tod wrote, included in his collection OTHER RESORT CITIES. Those stories are all fantastic, by the way, and you should go read them, too. I read them in undergrad, on assignment from my creative writing professor Tyler Dilts. Then Tyler had Tod come out to our class to talk to everyone, and I stayed after class and grilled Tod about the MFA program he runs, and he invited me out to come visit it for a day. Changed my life.

Tod is an excellent teacher, an amazing program director, and a freaking good writer. You can see that last one plain and simple in GANGSTERLAND. The Chicago Mafia’s best hit man is shipped off to Las Vegas to be put in hiding. He gets facial reconstruction surgery. He goes undercover as a rabbi. Yep, you read that right. Are you imagining all the potential for humor? It’s prevalent. A rabbi quoting Bruce Springsteen like it’s scripture isn’t something you want to miss.

Beyond the comedy, though, Tod weaves in so much good, heart-wrenching emotion. The protagonist is a “bad” guy. He killed people for a living. I couldn’t help rooting for him every step of the way, though. I want him to succeed. I want him to escape the Feds, and live out his life, and reunite with his wife and kid. There’s a nice parallel narrative, following a Fed on the trail to finding this guy. You feel for the Fed, too. You see how things went wrong in his life, and you want him to have a win, even if you want it to be a small one because you’d rather see the protagonist come out on top.

That’s what I mean when I say this book surprised me. I empathized with the characters, which is hard enough to get readers to do. But I empathized most with the one we would traditionally consider the “bad” guy. And I loved every minute of this. Definitely stayed up too late a couple nights, just to see what happened next. I’m excited for the sequel, GANGSTER NATION.

This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys a good crime novel. It’s great for everyone who doesn’t enjoy crime novels, too. Really. The writing and the characters are what make this book wonderful, and you’re missing out if you haven’t read it. So go read it, and then you’ll be waiting for the sequel as eagerly as I am.

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