Review: Forget Chinatown, Jake: Tod Goldberg’s ‘The Low Desert’ finds noir in L.A.’s far outskirts
On the Shelf
The Low Desert
By Tod Goldberg
Counterpoint: 304 pages, $26
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For a crime writer, a sense of place means as much as clean prose and a morally tormented hero. So a lot of what makes Tod Goldberg’s lively, often entertainingly snarky story collection “The Low Desert” so cohesive is its preferred destination for murder and despair: West Coast exurbia.
“The Royal Californian” takes place in a stretch of 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.” The penultimate story, “Ragtown,” concludes in a “rut of desert” outside Las Vegas. A handful of stories are set by the Salton Sea, a shriveling resort area ravaged by military tests, climate change and corporate exploitation. “The middle of someone else’s mistakes,” as one character puts it.
There are 8 million stories in the naked city, but it feels like nobody wants to tell city stories anymore. Noir fiction has ventured to the outskirts before — James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is the most obvious California example. But it emerged as a genre about the American city, a response to fear about expanding and diversifying metropolises, a reassurance for Americans who fled to the suburbs after World War II that they were escaping something. Today, when we can be paranoid about just about any place in the country, we don’t need shadowy skyscrapers and alleyways so much. Indeed, Goldberg suggests, the outskirts are where the real action is. As one tough guy tells another, “no one in Vegas gets shot anymore.”
We can probably credit much of this dynamic to prestige crime TV, which for the past two decades or so has argued that the worst of human nature thrives in suburban Jersey (“The Sopranos”), dusty Albuquerque (“Breaking Bad”), rural Louisiana (“True Detective”) and central Missouri (“Ozark,” “True Detective” again). But crime writers have been keeping up too, from Gillian Flynn to Daniel Woodrell to the host of writers who populate the places in Akashic Books’ noir story collections. (The series has featured Alabama, Cape Cod, Montana and Santa Fe among the usual suspects, leaving aside its many international entries.)
It’s all part of Tod Goldberg’s new novel, ‘Gangsterland,’ which was born out of a midlife crisis (sort of) and involves murder, a Mafia hit man, a rabbi and a cemetery in a bucolic Vegas suburb.
Goldberg himself has been exploring Southern California outside L.A. since 2009, when he published his collection “Other Resort Cities.” “The Low Desert” reprises and deepens some of the characters in that book, including Tania, a Palm Springs casino waitress who adopted a girl from Russia after striking it rich at the tables one night, only to have the girl disappear on her 5½ years later.
Her hopes for an enduring relationship are inexplicably dashed. “So foolish, Tania thinks, grabbing her tray. All of it,” Goldberg writes, summarizing the prevailing mood. (“Ragtown” reveals the girl’s fate.)
The places Goldberg writes about are sticky with corruption, but what distinguishes spots like Palm Springs and Summerlin, Nev., from big cities is a determination to preserve their clean middle-class facades. Morris, a former security chief for an oil company by the Salton Sea, recalls how the company’s sponsorship of a good-time boat race in 1962 was mainly about “paying off about fifty different entities in order to do business in the region.” (Not to mention covering up a murder that sets one story in motion.)
Goldberg, who lives in Indio and teaches writing at UC Riverside, grasps the dramatic potential of the hinterlands (other stories take place in rural Washington state and the Chicago suburbs). These are regions where bad guys are eager to lie low, but also where well-intentioned people are chasing the last scraps of the American Dream. In a place like that, with people like that, the line between good and bad easily becomes porous.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden talks about the motivations and the deeply embedded social and legal problems behind his potboiler “Winter Counts.”
“The Low Desert” has plenty of tight, flinty, noir-y sentences: “She shook out a cigarette from a pack of Marlboros at her feet, lit it, blew smoke into the sunset.” But his style, in the best stories here, is distinguished by a gallows humor featuring men who are just smart enough to work a grift but not bright enough to escape the ensuing trouble. In “Goon Number Four,” a cold-blooded mercenary tries to go legit by taking classes at a community college in Palm Springs, but when a professor gently attempts to make use of his services, his tough-guy exterior short-circuits his nascent intellect.
Similarly, “Professor Rainmaker” has a seriocomic “Breaking Bad”-like setup: A hydrologist who’s pivoted to both teaching and growing weed is caught in a deal gone bad. By the end, he’s devised a clever if cruel ruse to escape punishment, but the ominous tone suggests he’s kidding himself: “Grass would grow and die in precisely the manner it had since the beginning of time, with or without a system.”
The prevailing mood in noir is entrapment. And because you can feel hemmed in anywhere, the genre is free to travel outside the city limits. But the one story here that’s explicitly set in a city puts the different locales in sharp relief. “The Spare” is set in Chicago and features members of the Cupertine clan — an Outfit family at the center of two Goldberg novels, 2014’s “Gangsterland” and 2017’s “Gangster Nation.” The story, set in 1973, is a tonal throwback from the first sentence: “If Dark Billy Cupertine had to kill a guy, he preferred to do it up close, with his bare hands.” But it’s also structurally old-school — it’s a world built out of hierarchies and tough-talking masculinity.
The message in the story is clear: Cities are a place for old chains of command and bad guys who are victims of circumstance. (They’re also a place for skyscrapers, which figure in the story’s dramatic close.) Dark Billy is stuck in a life he was born into. But out in the desert, or in a foothill town, or behind the easily scaled fence of a gated community, people are free to reimagine their own grim fates. The world is wide open.
Nothing stays in Las Vegas. Nothing ever did.
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
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