Gangsters Don’t Die marks the end of Tod Goldberg’s Sal Cupertine trilogy, which stars a former mafia hitman-turned-rabbi. In this final installment, the life that Sal Cupertine (aka Rabbi David Cohen) has built for himself in Las Vegas is teetering on a cliff. The criminal empire he has created — an empire that uses Temple Beth Israel as a front — is under threat, and members of the Native Mob and the FBI are gunning for his head. He knows it’s time for him to quit the game. But before he does, he needs to find out where his wife and son, both of whom are in witness protection, are hiding, so that he can finally reunite with them.
Despite the admittedly ridiculous (yet inventive) premise of a former hitman becoming a rabbi in an effort to start a new life, Gangsters Don’t Die takes itself seriously. Characters are drawn clearly and empathically, and their desire for power and companionship is well-crafted and believable. The easy comparison to Gangsters Don’t Die is The Sopranos: both tell the stories of mobsters in the early twenty-first century, and both attempt to deepen their characters beyond the stylized portraits that dominate the mafia genre. Sal Cupertine doesn’t have the same existential concerns Tony Soprano does, but he nevertheless has questions of his own: Has he been the rabbi his community has needed, despite the fact that he’s been running a criminal enterprise out of his synagogue? Did he ever have a choice to live a different kind of life? Who else could he have been?
Although Sal Cupertine is the main character, the novel cycles through multiple points of view, illustrating many facets of mafia life and influence during the early twenty-first century. Some of these passages can be dry; but for those who are interested in the topic, it will be endlessly entertaining. For readers who are less interested in mafia life, or are looking to see a representation of a twenty-first century rabbi, this might not be the book of choice. It’s much more concerned with mob life and back-alley deals than it is with the rabbinic experience. That being said, there are some powerful moments in which Sal reconciles the life he’s lived with the Jewish principles he’s outwardly devoted himself to.
As the final installment in the trilogy, there is a lot the reader will miss — including names, dates, and locations — if they do not read the first two. However, the first quarter of the book does relay the majority of the backstory. After that, the present narrative really kicks off and sweeps the reader away.
Gangsters Don’t Die is an authentic, fully realized, modern-day noir thriller. For readers who want excitement but don’t want to skip out on character development and interiority, this book is a great choice.
Benjamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Ticket, Santa Fe Writers’ Project Quarterly, and other publications. He holds an MFA in fiction from Rutgers-Newark.