The Low Desert: Gangster Stories by Tod Goldberg. Review by Gabriel Hart



The expanse of the California Desert is elusive geography to define, its magnetic desolation often leaves us speechless once we arrive here. Even the more developed metropolis of the Coachella Valley is misunderstood, miscategorized. Most know it for its annual namesake music festival on one end, with Palm Springs welcoming them at the other; but rarely is there focus on what’s in-between it all. We forget how close we are to Mexico; that once you step east past Jefferson from the pristine golf courses in La Quinta, it essentially feels like you’re already there. La Quinta, always trying to gerrymander the borders so they can steal a bigger piece of that Coachella fest pie from neighboring Indio. And the longer you hang in the Low Desert, the more you notice how blatant the class divide oozes low-key chaos — ‘cause when there’s class divide, there’s always crime.

I considered my attendance at Goldberg’s online release for The Low Desert a sort of civic duty, knowing our underbelly well yet was somehow unfamiliar with him until recently. And that’s my crime — Goldberg has been writing about the area for decades now. Books like Other Resort Cities helped secure our seediness on the map before he expanded nationally in Gangsterland and Gangster Nation — both which have been recently optioned for TV series by Amazon. With Low Desert, he’s taken a similar approach with format that Don Winslow did last year with his Broken collection, revisiting old characters by connecting a larger criminal universe within the threads of short stories. “I’ve always written about death,” he said. “But the Low Desert is more about the aftermath of conflict — the fear of understanding why someone died.”

When asked about what connects him with Coachella Valley gangster culture,  “My Mom,” he said, with a humble giggle. “Those were her boyfriends while I was growing up here.” A memory dawned of one particular man of hers he’d often see lounging poolside, shirtless, with hundreds of bullet hole scars from head to toe he described like “swiss cheese.”

One of the ways our Low Desert is unique — the co-mingling of Italian/Mexican gangster influence. Palm Springs was largely built with mob money (that’s why Sinatra was such a regional poster boy), while Mexican gangs continue to claim Indio, Coachella, and Desert Hot Springs on lock. We’re starting to see Russian and Armenian hands on the table as well. Back at his book event, Goldberg described Palm Springs as an “open city,” where crime families could do business to and from L.A. and not get killed — a sort of portal to freedom.

While there’s an inherent safety of anonymity here, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not going to break a sweat. In the first story, “The Royal Californian,” we catch up with Shane. He’s on the hobble with a gunshot in his foot, his car broken down, waiting for AAA to pick him up. And the clock is ticking — foot infection setting in and the segmented corpse of Gold Mike in his trunk, both of which are fucking with his judgment. The free seven-mile tow takes him to The Royal Californian hotel, wherein the adjoining bar he meets a lawyer named Terry — a corrupt Saul Goodman type. He hints at his predicament and Terry seems to take the case off the clock. But not before things go gonzo when they meet Hermie the Clown, also off duty but in full circus gear.

(Now, there’s a term we use out here: Desert Shit. You know it when you see it. It’s like the debris from a Desert Rat — our name for the local lifers — whose essence invites an image or scenario that reeks of the surreal, yet business as usual to the rest of us here. Absurd as it is, the appearance of Hermie the Clown would be desert shit, without a doubt).

The title track story “The Low Desert” is a 60s period piece taking place at the Salton Sea. For the uninitiated, the Salton Sea is our biggest elephant in the room — a manmade ecological disaster that threatens the health of the Coachella Valley’s southside. Every decade there are attempts to rebrand it, citing its “potential,” but Goldberg refers to it bluntly as a grift from its inception. The story starts at its heyday, back when there were locally sponsored boat races of debatable management, peddling the illusion of an idyllic budget vacation spot for Southern California families. Until the corpse of a young boy washes up one morning, and its karma personified for the vintage grifters. Goldberg paints an important close-up with the decomposition of the boy’s body, citing the Sea’s looming pollution on top of typical post-mortem decay.

While largely relegated to the reservations, the Native American demographic looms large here, their entrepreneurial spirits erecting our thirteen (and counting) casinos, which makes the area like a Little Las Vegas. But without the glamor and wealth of The Entertainment Capital of the World, we attract more transient desperation of lower budgets. In the story “Palm Springs” Goldberg’s wayward heroine is a bartender named Tania, whom he inhabits with melancholic mercy:

“How did she end up in Palm Springs? She asked herself this question repeatedly and the answer was always the same: it wasn’t Vegas. Usually, that sufficed, but tonight, sitting across from Gordon, his face getting younger with every passing moment until she’s certain he’s no more than thirty-two (unless what’s happened is that with each drink she’s tacked on another month to her life, so that means she’s now pushing seventy), she knows that she ended up in Palm Springs because it was the only place where she had no memories, no connections, nothing to remind her of everything lost, but where the world itself was essentially the same. She could do her job. She could breathe the desert air. She could listen to the dinging of the slots, the whooping of the drunks, the crunching of ice in the blender, the drone of mindless cocktail conversation and pretend her life had frozen in place, that she’d conjured the whole sad affair. Yes, she would close her eyes inside the Chuyalla Indian Casino and imagine herself thirty, childless, and disproportionate to reality.”

We take a crowd-pleasing detour to Chicago in “The Spare,” revisiting Italian mob characters from Goldberg’s Gangsterland/Nation days. Seamlessly, he brings it back to the desert in “Goon Number Four,” where Blake, a young Windy City affiliated hitman, is dressed in a black Armani suit he bought the Cabazon retail outlet (where our famous roadside attraction dinosaurs stand). A smart geographical transition. Blake is done with hits, or so he thinks when he enrolls in community college — only to get wrapped up with protecting his communications teacher from a female stalker. The dialogue is whip-smart here, hilarious. Play Misty for Me is referenced here for good reason — despite the fact that podcasts have long replaced radio with wider accessibility. Blake encrypts the methods to his madness in his own school project, which on the surface seems as innocent as This American Life, only he can’t shake the effective death threat.

Goldberg admitted during his event that “The Last Good Man” was the current incarnation of a story he’s re-written three to four times that have been in previous books. It sounds like an incriminating thing to confess, but writers tend to have stories that haunt them like unfinished business. Perhaps these become an author’s own folk tale, a game of solitary telephone.

I was glad to see Tania return in “The Pilgrims,” as she had stuck into me the deepest. We get an even deeper backstory to Tania’s desperation, as she drives to Woods Detention Center to visit her husband Don. But the real heartache comes from her mingling with other ladies like her in the waiting room, illuminating some real long-suffering pathos:

“I remember you from a few weeks back,” she says. “You were reading a book about spies, so I bought it at Target.”

“Did we talk?” says Tania.

“No,” the woman says, “I was just looking at you and thought you looked pretty put together, so I made it a point to remember your name when they called it.”

“Did you read the book?”

“Tried to,” she says, “but it didn’t make any sense. Bunch of people running around talking conspiracies and shit. And I was like, you kill someone, you don’t need to have the president behind you to make it dramatic, you know? People getting killed is people getting killed no matter who calls the shot.”

“I believe that too,” Tania says, “My husband killed someone.”

“Yeah, how come?”

“I don’t really know,” Tania says.

“You didn’t ask him?”

“No,” Tania says. “It happened before I knew him.”

“You seem like a nice lady,” the woman says, “but you need to dump that man of yours. He makes you guilty by association.”

“What about you? Are you guilty of whatever your boyfriend did?”

“I am,” she says. “And so here I am, just like you, every weekend, doing my time.”

In “Mazel” we see FBI agent Kristy Levine leading this collection to one of its darkest, mortal corners. She is given six months to live from a cancer diagnosis. The irony: after a substantial body count from her professional hand, after the paranoid thoughts of anyone in that orbit seeking revenge, it’s her own body that is trying to kill her.

That terminal illness thread takes us to Rancho Mirage in “The Salt,” at a cancer treatment center where our inpatient is “clinging to a chemical cocktail.” The haze of the regiment and his advanced sickness is making our narrator an unreliable one, his “consciousness doing its best imitation of liquefication.” A great analogy before he returns us to the Salton Sea, present day. Although we can barely trust his stream of recollection that brings him here, it’s the perfect way to capture the surreal quality of “the sea where there should not be a sea.” Goldberg doesn’t hold back here, laying out the Sea’s full scope corruption. It’s a nightmare travelogue of that whole area, hanging a left to Slab City, “the former Marine Corps base that became a squatter’s paradise.

Goldberg is really messing with our emotions by the time we get to “Ragtown” It’s on the outskirts of Vegas where he breaks our heart the hardest. While Tania doesn’t appear in the story, an estranged piece of her is revealed, one she might never reconcile from — all those sleepless nights and obsessive thoughts of loss for nothing. A stomach-churning penultimate end to our trip…

Yet we’re suddenly stuck at O’Hare airport with a dude named Peaches who works for Allied Baggage. The very last story “Gangway” is a convoluted anti-climax that gets him mixed up with a whole other kind of job — another guy entangled with the Cupertine crime family in Chicago. It’s as if Goldberg left this for last as its own commentary, that nothing is ever truly cinched up when dealing with shady company — even when it’s the last story of a fantastic collection. And since he’s taken us places that we didn’t initially even bargain for, Goldberg has shown us The Low Desert not just as a mystifying location, but another state of mind.




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