When Tom Pitts asked if I’d be interested in reading an advanced copy of his latest novel, Hustle, and possibly writing a review, I jumped at the chance. Having read his previous work, Piggyback, I knew I’d be in for a balls-to-the-wall story, one that didn’t give a happy tinker’s damn about decorum and convention.
I had no idea.
Hustle releases this month, so hang on. For dear life. Here’s my review:
“A trick is a trick,” says Donny in the opening pages of Tom Pitts’ searing, disturbing and gripping Hustle. It’s the kind of world-weary, jaded statement uttered by a shell of person, one so beaten down and used up by the grind of an existence with no means, no hope and no way out that nothing seems to matter anymore.
Hustle, as the title implies, pits Donny and Big Rich, San Francisco junkies who support their habit — and their sad cycle of existence — as prostitutes, with a scheme as old as time. Alternately turning tricks and getting high and/or fighting off the inevitable sickness of withdrawal, Big Rich sees a shot at a big score: blackmailing a rich client with particularly deviant sexual preferences.
A couple of junkies with blackmail scheme? What could possibly go wrong, right?
Pitts unreels a terrifying tale of the underworld as Donny and Big Rich flail about while their plan morphs into a disaster at light speed. Pitts’ storytelling is rough, dirty and compelling as hell. What appears at first glance to be a couple of dope-sick boy whores sliming their way through the city is a riveting story of desperate determination. Which is, in fact, the life of the addict. Donny and Big Rich’s fixation on their goal — a fat payoff — isn’t necessarily noble (even though Big Rich claims he’s doing it to “get out” and be reunited with his daughter), but it is complete, consequences be damned. And there are certainly consequences.
Truth be told, there’s not a noble character in the entire novel, just people who seem aware of who and what they are, and aren’t looking for a way up or out as much as they are looking for a kind of ultimate satisfaction or gratification. Donny goes along with Big Rich because the payoff potentially means a better existence, whatever it may be. And while he’s certainly no hero, Donny is hardly the anti-hero type, either, at least not in the sense readers have been accustomed to in the noir genre. Donny isn’t hard-edged or cynical. He’s wrung out and lost, with seemingly nothing at all left to lose, which is exactly what elevates him to a heroic stature.
Pitts deserves high praise for having the balls to write this novel. He may not have flinched writing it, but readers will flinch reading it. Pitts just doesn’t push it to the edge; he completely redefines the boundaries with a realism that is, yes, shocking and sad, but true to itself and undeniably authentic. Hustle won’t just stick with you for a while after reading it. If you have a soul at all, it will haunt you.