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Books: Outlaws in the American Outback

Tod Goldberg

The Low Desert probes the criminal underbelly of the Southern California desert — and of Las Vegas

Most stories are about people. But stories also can be about places. Sometimes, a place is not particularly vivid or pertinent. You might spend the whole story in one room, or perhaps the narrative unfolds in some corner of a person’s brain. But for me, the best stories are those in which the setting is an integral part of the narrative.

In Tod Goldberg’s new collection of crime fiction, The Low Desert: Gangster Stories, his primary setting is a part of Southern California hardly anybody else writes or thinks about: the far-inland desert towns running from Palm Springs south to the borderlands. These areas are absent, for the most part, from the public consciousness, except when the Coachella music festival materialized there for a couple of weeks each spring in pre-pandemic times. Las Vegas — a more prominent element of the desert Southwest — is a second important place in this book.

These desert towns are not where most Southern California writers set their stories. They tend to stay within sniffing distance of the ocean, and who can blame them? But Goldberg knows this area and its people, because he lives there.

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And because he knows the area, he resists the temptation to produce lyrical descriptions of desert vistas or gritty urban hellscapes. Instead, he wisely opts for a well-turned sentence or snapshot, just enough to transport us to, say, the suburban sprawl of Palm Springs: “The Royal Californian sat on a stretch of Highway 111 in Indio that could have been Carson City or Bakersfield or Van Nuys or anywhere else where someone had the wise idea to plant a palm tree and then surround it with cement.”

Or decaying remnants at the Salton Sea: “The barracks themselves are a Swiss cheese of mortar and drywall, to the point that even from this distance I can see the sparse traffic on Highway 86 through their walls, as if a newsreel from the future had been projected onto the past.”

Or the clash of nature and city in western Las Vegas: “Red Rock Canyon loomed around them, casting everything in a peaceful amber shadow … until you turned and were assaulted by the nearby sprawl of sand-colored homes and, farther away, the jutting spire of the Stratosphere, along with a nice view of half of humanity landing at and launching from McCarran.”

Most of Goldberg’s stories are about criminals of one kind or another, from low-level drug dealers to top-rung mob bosses. This, too, is a little daring and admirable, because too often literary writers avoid this central thread in the fabric of American life. (If you don’t think crime is fully integrated into American life, then you must have been sleeping for the past four years.)

Goldberg, some years back, decided that crime fiction would be his calling card, and his novels Gangsterland (2015) and Gangster Nation (2018), both largely set in Las Vegas, represent his finest work to date. But he remains one of the most literary of working crime writers.

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Most of the stories in The Low Desert succeed by blending the thought-provoking nature of literary storytelling with the brisk action of pulp noir. Oh yes, people are killed in these stories, and not by slow-burning angst. They are shot, or drowned, or their heads get chopped off. But don’t misunderstand: Amid the carnage, Goldberg deftly inserts three-dimensional people with real-life issues. There’s something for everyone here, including Goldberg’s trademark biting humor.

In one memorable story, “Goon Number Four,” an international assassin abandons his high-risk, high-reward career in order to take classes at the local community college. But he can’t quite shake his old habits. If this story isn’t made into a movie or television series soon, then Hollywood has lost its mojo. In “Professor Rainmaker,” a hydrologist — no joke — finds his place in the brutal world of international drug trafficking. “Mazel,” featuring an FBI agent in Las Vegas who innocently wanders into the middle of the agency’s biggest mystery, offers this spot-on bit of social commentary:

“She was allowed to tell people she was an FBI agent. Only the covert parts of the job were classified. But in Las Vegas, where half the people were about an inch away from a RICO charge, it was like telling someone in East Germany that you worked for the Stasi.”

Las Vegas is the setting for two of the 12 stories, but the city is mentioned here and there throughout the collection. And in each case, Goldberg not only accurately describes the geography, but displays a decent understanding of how the town works as well. In “The Royal Californian,” a man dressed as a clown, sitting in a bar in Palm Springs, remarks:

“Everyone here is always trying to get to Las Vegas, everyone in Las Vegas is always trying to get somewhere else, no one happy to be any one place.”

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Goldberg clearly put a lot of thought into the selection and order of the stories in this volume. Some are fast-paced cops-and-crooks tales, while others have a more contemplative literary bent. Most of them are connected in some way. A restaurant referenced in passing in the opening story becomes the focal point of another story toward the end of the collection. A character in one story shows up in another. Something that happened several decades ago in one story has significance in a more contemporary narrative. A few are directly connected to Goldberg’s novels Gangsterland and Gangster Nation — they could be chapters trimmed to meet a word count. (These stories surely are required reading for Gangsterland completists.) Goldberg might cringe at the reference, but there’s a Tolkien-esque element of world-building going on here.

This imagined desert underworld, home to racketeers and regret, buried bodies and criminal clowns, is an engrossing place to spend time. The thoughtful treatment of Las Vegas is particularly appreciated. One hopes Goldberg continues to explore these places he knows so well.

 

Geoff Schumacher is the vice president of exhibits and programs at The Mob Museum in Las Vegas.