Tom Pitts, Hustle (Snubnose Press, 2014).
In the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, Donny and Big Rich, two down-and-out street hustlers and career addicts, are tired of turning tricks for a meal and a fix. The singular focus of life is scoring, as the degradation of being straight sex-trade workers warps their minds, especially Donny. So, they hatch a blackmail scheme: capture Gabriel, a criminal lawyer and one of Big Rich’s wealthiest Johns, in the act and on film, then milk him for the rest of their days. In the desperate edge of addiction and abuse, such a scheme is sager than the planning for Normandy.
But their target proves problematic. Gabriel is already in the thrall of Dustin, bonafide murderer and psychotic, and made a slave to him in his own house. When Gabriel hires an ex-biker named Bear to break him out, things go bad to worse. Donny and Big Rich become near-hapless allies of Bear to save Gabriel from Dustin’s own rampage and blackmail plans. Street level cunning, dire straits, and Donny’s own growing realization that all roads are damned lead to a catastrophic ending that pulls no punches about a simple truth: first rule of the street is the street ain’t fair.
Hustle is rich and volatile crime fiction that blends the gutter of street life to the evil of wealth and the corruption of violence, power, and addiction. Pitts is excellent at generating authentic characters that drive the story forward. Donny and Rich are easy at lying to fake social norms, and have a razor thin friendship forged by common addiction and the desire for a life without hustling every day just to survive. The world they endure is ugly, layered, and covered in the stink, pathos and desolation. The only logic that survives in this poisoned ground is “how do I stay high without torturing myself?”
The world of Hustle reminds me of why I always prefer crime fiction to thrillers. The difference between the two genres is often the level of expertise of the characters involved. But I’m bored with brilliant people doing brilliant things, mad scientists and Jason Bournes. Among my favorite scenes in Hustle is when Bear, Donny and Big Rich have been dumped and trapped by Dustin in a basement. Sure, Bear’s smart enough to have a concealed weapon, but the real joy is them breaking out: he uses his knife to undo the hinges of a door. After all, they’re built to keep people out, not in! In the hands of a thriller writer, the “problem” of the door would have been jacked up with locks and codes and guards and cameras. Pitts avoids this trap like the plague by making sure the problem is fucking pathetic and improvised and not very good; just like a lot of plans from rabid brains. It’s a perfect antidote to Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty out-braining themselves.
But the tension is still taut and bloody human. Donny and Big Rich are involved in events they can’t control, but influence, and are still driven more from addiction than any other human value. They are knights in search of the holy fix, and won’t let murder and violence stop them. And yet, the most compelling scene, the kind that might be cut out of regular trade publication, is when Donny survives a brutal act of sexual violence that could happen anytime and anywhere on the wrong night in the Tenderloin. It compounds his desperation, but can’t break him from his addiction, so the intensity for the scheme to work is magnified by horror. It jars the reader out of the story. Sure, it serves plot, but it does more than that. It anchors the story in the reality of the world and is as compelling as the last run against Dustin.
Crime novels can end with elation and success (noir must, by definition, not). But Hustle ends with the same sense of dread that it began. I won’t spoil how, but Pitts gives his novels poignancy by not reaching for a happy ending, or even wrapping things up in a neat little bow. Hustle is a reality check for those surviving the streets, and like Pitts other little crime gem, Piggyback, it conveys an even more powerful them. Happy endings only belong in massage parlors and fairy tale, and sometimes the best you can hope for is another day to be alive. —JSR