Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Young hustler's wit gives novel edgy appeal
VANCOUVER writer Billie Livingston likes to write about women on the edge.
Her 2010 short-story collection, Greedy Little Eyes, dramatized a number of marginal characters faced with personal dilemmas who made difficult, often unpredictable and sometimes violent choices for their futures.
In her new novel, One Good Hustle, she brings to life Sammie Bell, 16-year-old daughter of small-time hustlers Sam and Marlene.
She's a smart-ass and a dumb-ass, both at once, and though engaging -- her ripostes and reflections on people and life are especially sharp -- she's not quite as attractive as Livingston maybe thinks she is.
With Marlene, Sammie pulls off scams like "One Woman Hotel Hustle." They feed off marks and score a couple of hundred bucks on these jaunts. It's dodgy doings with the distinct tang of peril: a mark could turn on them, they could be sent to jail.
The dark underside of urban life has intrigued readers since at least the time of Dickens. Think Mario Puzo, Jim Tomson and the Coen brothers.
Livingston shows that overall such lives are misery; there's excitement in the world of hustle but it's grungy, not glamorous.
Sammie cannot quite put the world of the hustle behind her, though, because she adores Sam, living in Toronto, after abandoning Marlene and Sammie in Burnaby.
He's a creep, but Sammie can't quite see it -- or accept it. She wishes desperately for him to return and reunite the family. At the same time, she wishes she could have a family like her friend Jill, "people who were clean and good and right," rather than Marlene, hooked on her "I don't-give-a-crap pills," and Sam, the absent father.
Sammie bounces between these two worlds, some days contemptuous of the stable middle-class world of Jill; on other days envious of its stability and peace.
It's a sort of "innocence versus experience" drama, with a twist: Sammie has experience in her life but she yearns for innocence.
The conflict pulls her apart -- but in an engaging way for readers; pages flip. What will become of Sammie, which way will she jump?
It's a good read. And Sammie's "wit," her sharp observations and acid tongue, lends the novel the same quirky, edgy appeal evident in Livingston's other novels, Going Down Swinging (2000) and Cease to Blush (2006).
There is an issue. Well past the halfway point of the novel the meaning of "one good hustle" is unclear. Does it mean Sammie is "hustling" her way into Jill's normal family? Does it obliquely mean she's hustling the reader with the deceits and feints of first-person narrative? Or is the hustle yet to come?
This ambiguity over the title will not be a major issue for readers -- Sammie and her conflicts are too enticing to allow that -- but it goes on too long and becomes a distraction rather than a functional ambiguity.
It turns out the good hustle is -- but, no, that shouldn't be revealed.
What can be revealed is that Sammie comes to see the world of hustle for what it is, cheap and destructive. And at the conclusion of her journey she's ready to embrace a world where people care for others and try to help them lead happy, healthy and productive lives.
A hustle is a high-wire act, as is writing a novel: a slip at any second of its unfolding can be its undoing. In One Good Hustle, Livingston just about manages to pull it off.
Winnipeg writer Wayne Tefs' new book, On the Fly, a chronicle of the Jets' past season, will be released in the fall by Turnstone Press.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 J9