Chicago Mafia

A legendary hit man for the Chicago Mafia named Sal Cupertine is spirited off to Las Vegas in a refrigerated meat truck after a botched job. There, after six months of radical plastic surgery and cramming with the Torah and the Talmud, he resurfaces as Rabbi David Cohen in a thriving suburban Reform congregation. Funny, right? Could be hilarious? Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Oh, Gangsterland has its moments. There are times when the sheer absurdity of the premise becomes overwhelming, and my only defense was to laugh. In fact, the further I followed the Byzantine plot of this novel — it involves a funeral-parlor scam and “body-laundering” for the Mafia — the more absurd it became. Sad to say, author Tod Goldberg is too intent on fleshing out his characters as three-dimensional human beings than with wringing humor out of a story tailor-made for farce. The result is an awkward combination of sensitive, naturalistic fiction and comedy of the absurd. Shakespeare knew better than to get so serious when he was going for laughs. So did Donald E. Westlake.

Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg ★★★☆☆

Goldberg creates suspense in Gangsterland by alternating chapters between Cupertine’s point of view and that of his adversary in the FBI, a hapless special agent named Jeff Hopper. As Hopper pursues the trail of obscure clues that lead him ever closer to Cupertine, the tension builds — or, rather, it would have, if I’d cared much about who did what to whom.

Tod Goldberg is a novelist and short story-writer who may be better known as the author of several novels based on the TV series “Burn Notice.” He teaches creative writing at the University of California-Riverside.

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