‘Other Resort Cities’ by Tod Goldberg

Other Resort Cities

Tod Goldberg

OV Books: 216 pp., $16.95

“Other Resort Cities,” Tod Goldberg’s latest collection of stories, explores desperate, double-dealing and deluded lives striving for authenticity in developments where “memory becomes insufficient in the face of commerce and space.” The landscape includes the resort cities of Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Scottsdale with their brand-new, gated communities as arid and unnatural as the humans that live uneasily within them.

Goldberg, whose previous books include the novel “Living Dead Girl,” a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the story collection “Simplify,” is a master of presenting the dark matter of the human psyche in beguiling, sometimes fantastic, inventive ways. This collection gleefully introduces uninitiated readers into Goldberg’s richly comic voice and his continued preoccupation with our potential for violence and self-deception.

In “Living Room,” Jason grapples with the mysterious disappearance of his wife and kids by building a Starbucks franchise in his gated development home. Hiring a barista allows Jason to take solace in superficial conversation, but when he crosses the line and asks the young man intimate questions, will the barista vanish as his wife did? What is striking about the story isn’t the uncertainty of whether Jason is telling the truth about his missing family but the unnerving implication that our most comforting daily exchanges take place with strangers who cheerfully tell us “to have a great, great day.” The facelessness of their surroundings provides Goldberg’s characters with opportunities to hide, whether from others or from their own emptiness or grief. In “The Models,” Terry, a copy machine salesman, kidnaps his children from his ex-wife but can come up with no better place to keep them than in vacant model homes. As a child, Terry yearned to sneak into the identical houses of his neighbors, but as he grows up and marries, he comes to realize that “other people’s closed-door lives were just as sordid and disappointing as his own.” If realities in different homes are so interchangeable, then Terry comes to wonder whether kidnapping his children is truly the most futile of undertakings.

Each story pivots on extreme premises -- kidnapping, murder, switched identities. Yet Goldberg’s interest in violence is less in its physical manifestation than in its seismic aftermath. The characters here are more likely to think and remember than try to forget; thus the most-used point of view is that of the deeply flawed or unreliable narrator. Two such stories that offer a similar final plot twist are about men on the brink of new, dangerous lives. In “Rainmaker,” William Cooperman stews in a dead-end job as an adjunct professor at Cal State Fullerton. Despite his talent in hydrology -- he invented a progressive eco-friendly sprinkler system that threatened obsolescence for his employer -- William is most successful at inadvertent self-sabotage: “What good was it being a superhero if no one respected your superpowers?” This being a Goldberg story, we are thankfully spared epiphanies of middle-aged failure. Instead, Cooperman opts for more unexpected and violent solutions to combat his stasis.

“Mitzvah” finds Rabbi David Cohen overseeing a large congregation in Las Vegas -- except in his former life he was big-time Chicago mobster Sal Cupertine. His cover, surprisingly, is rock solid: “He’d found that if he simply dropped the Midrash into conversation, rejoined with the word ‘essentially,’ and then paraphrased Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen, people left him feeling like they’d learned something.” Facing 50, the life of weddings and brises and funeral eulogies grows tiresome, and as the aching memory of the family he left behind becomes too acute, the rabbi must get in touch with his previous identity to escape the safe dullness of his double life.

The two stories with the most naked, vulnerable protagonists are prominent standouts. In the quietly moving title story, a Las Vegas cocktail waitress in her mid-30s brings back an adopted daughter from Tula, Russia. Completely unprepared for the new role of mother to a sullen 12-year-old, Tania wonders if the relationship will ever be real: She “would like to believe that there is some recognition in her daughter’s eyes, that the girl sees in Tania the same thing that Tania feels. That she does love her. That she will never love her. That she thinks she already knows Natalya completely, because that poor girl is her, was her, could be her, wishes she was her.” Can a genuine family be forged to fill a phantom existence in a city of casinos and reproductions of national landmarks?

“Walls,” told from a first-person plural point of view by a set of grown children, addresses the father that left them in the hands of an abusive, neglectful mother. “And you walked down the hallway and poked your head into each of our rooms and you said good-bye and you said sorry and you said you tried for us but that there’s a limit and you’d found yours and then the stapler hit you in the back and we looked and Mom was throwing things from her bedroom at you.” The restraint, lyricism and deceptive simplicity of the story’s architecture astounds with its heart-rending resonance.

What Goldberg taps into most beautifully is the impulse to retreat from the chaotic complexity of the world, the ubiquitous temptation to inhabit the pristine model-home lives of our dreams.

Reyn is the author of the novel “What Happened to Anna K.”