Low Desert, The: Gangster Stories, By Tod Goldberg, 308 pgs.

Jan 26, 2021

First, the subtitle: not all the stories are gangster stories. But Goldberg has had indie-press hits with his novels Gangsterland and Gangster Nation and this is an indie-press collection of short fiction. Collections of short fiction always need an extra boost if they can get one (and most of the stories feature gangsters in some way). One of the stories features the gangster who the two novels are about, but you’ll actually enjoy that one more if you don’t know which one it is.

Second, the topic of gangsters: unless gangster fiction is now its own genre, with semi-formal expectations, like detective and Western fiction (and maybe it is), you either want from your gangster fiction authority or fun (or both). You don’t get the impression that Goldberg has done a journalism-level amount of research into organized crime (or if he has, then there’s nothing much about organized crime that we would find new at this point), but you do suspect that no one has ever had more fun writing about gangsters than he’s had, and as the book progresses, you’re more and more ready to see where his imagination is going to go this time. (Oh, right, reading fiction is supposed to be fun.)

Abutting the more fun stories are solemn stories, but here a lack of authority casts a shadow. Goldberg imagines a sheriff, or a head of security, coming upon the ravages of organized crime—nothing surprising, and therefore nothing moving, just skill—no, not “just skill.” One of those stories is set around Southern California’s Salton Sea in the ’60s, and with regards to creating a time and a place, Goldberg’s ability as a historical fiction writer excels. Then you get to the end, and, well…

The book also features two solemn stories about a casino waitress who comes into some money and adopts a daughter, a woman he’d written two stories about in an earlier collection, stories that I still think about, years later. (One of the new stories is a rewritten version of one of the older ones.) Goldberg makes you worry about her, makes you wish that he’d write about her at length. But as he’s making his name as a top-shelf comic crime novelist, that doesn’t seem likely. –Jim Woster (Counterpoint, counterpointpress.com)