Hustle by Tom Pitts is a gritty, harsh story of two male prostitutes from San Francisco who attempt to blackmail a wealthy lawyer in order to get off the streets and out of the business (available April 1, 2014).
Despite all the good authors working in the field today, most noir is not exactly what you'd call mainstream. In noir's stubborn allegiance to darkness and loss, fuck-ups and crackpots, it may never be. From a fan's perspective, this is exciting. It means noir remains an area not entirely sullied by commercial concerns, and the result is books that can take risks. Tom Pitts' Hustle is that sort of book, a fearless exploration of a bleak, harsh slice of the world. In its frank portrayal of drug-addicted male hustlers angling and scrambling to survive, it's a novel with a transgressive edge, and you don't have to read very far into it to sense it will take you where it needs to go, not where it thinks the reader may want to travel.
We're in San Francisco, present day. Donny and his friend Big Rich are two addicts with no jobs who make whatever money they can as street prostitutes. Donny seems to be in his late teens; Big Rich is a little older. They are best friends who look out for each other, and Rich serves as a mentor to Donny. They are part of a group of boys who hustle, and from page one, Pitts gives us a clear-eyed view of their tight community:
…Down on that corner, everybody knew each other. Everybody was into each other's business. The boys depended on each other for information. Information was survival. They all knew the regulars, the older men who would cruise the corner in their luxury cars. They got to know who was married, who liked to party, who liked it freaky, and who was HIV-positive. Some of the tricks didn't care who knew, but some liked to keep it a secret.
Donny isn't there because he likes the sex; it's the party favors that come with the sex that he craves. Of course there are dangers, but with Rich as his buddy, he has the right person to guide him through everything. In his time on the street Rich has honed his survival skills well:
Big Rich had been down there longer than any of them. He was bigger, tougher, and more street-worn than the rest of them, but he was still handsome enough to be desirable. His few years on the corner added up to eons of experience. He was a seasoned pro. Rich could smell vice before they ever hit the block. He'd give a high whistle whenever he heard them coming and the boys would all start moving, walking, lighting cigarettes and talking on cell phones. It's not like they were fooling anybody. Everybody in the city knew what went on down there.
Donny and Rich's primary drug is heroin, shot intravenously, but they also do meth and coke. They love speedballs. They smoke cigarettes nonstop. Both are young enough that their bodies haven't started to break down yet, but they're always a few hours away from the first achy signs of withdrawal. Though content when in a nod in either of their rooms, Donny and Rich have had enough of the street and want to escape it.
Rich convinces Donny that they can use their cell phones to film a session with one of Rich's regular clients, a wealthy lawyer secretive about his sexual proclivities. They'll threaten to put the footage on YouTube unless the client agrees to pay them off and keep paying them off. But what they don't know is that their intended target, for all his money, is caught in a bad situation of his own. He's about to get engulfed in a scheme unrelated to theirs, a far nastier one which sucks Donny and Rich into its vortex.
Pitts packs his novel with precise details about San Francisco and the hustlers' milieu, but he never once stops the story's forward movement. The passage here is a typical example, folding in points about the lawyer's character:
It was already dark by the time he reached the intersection of Polk and Sutter. The corner was near empty. The wind was blowing and it looked cold. Regular foot traffic; people with their collars up hurrying home from work, homeless derelicts pushing carts, transsexual hookers in outrageous clothing heading back to their roosts on the next block. No young men out there. Gabriel sat at a red light wondering why he'd bothered. He had the boy's cell number, he could easily call and set up a meeting, a date, but he wasn't up for a face-to-face encounter, not tonight. A horn blared from behind and startled him from his thoughts. The light had turned green while he was staring at the corner. He didn't even want to be seen down there. Embarrassed, he hooked a right and headed back toward Pacific Heights.
Pitts manages to evoke his world without any sensationalism, nor does he plumb these underworld depths to give us a taste of the exotic. He does not shy away from presenting actual sex, encounters between the hustlers and their tricks. In these scenes, which are essential to our understanding of the people involved, Pitts is able to convey a number of things at once: sadness, humor, disgust, the yearnings of the characters. It takes guts to write scenes like this, not to mention skill.
What's more, Pitts presents the players before us as just human, not freaky or grotesque. Donny, Rich, and Gabriel are all fully-fleshed, idiosyncratic people, and their solidness makes you care about them. Despite the hustle they're trying to run on Gabriel, I liked Donny and Big Rich, and from the moment he's introduced, Gabriel comes across as a sympathetic person. You don't want to see him hurt. It's as if you're in the corners of all three participants, and added to the mix is the fourth main character, a fifty-year old biker named Bear.
Summoned for help by Gabriel to help the lawyer deal with his large problem (not the Donny and Rich plan), Bear is a guy who has done his share of hell-raising. Gabriel is his lawyer, and because of past legal assistance from him, Bear doesn't hesitate to help the old man. In this gruff, weathered guy who now lives a quite life transporting weed, drinking beer, and watching television, Bear has a presence that leaps off the page, and the scenes with him, Donny, and Rich are both touching and funny:
There was no way Bear was bringing these two mutts home with him. He had a rule in his house about guests. The rule was: No Guests. Especially not two heroin-addicted, speed-freak, boy whores.
Donny leaned in from the back seat and said, “We wanna help.” And in case it didn't sound sincere enough, he added, “We wanna help save him.”
Bear looked in the rearview at Donny. He felt bad; he was beginning to like this kid. Too bad he was so full of shit.
Bear comes to develop a somewhat protective attitude toward Donny, and as the story races along, the book touches on notions of friendship, loyalty and loneliness.
In Hustle, Tom Pitts has written a memorable book. It blends plot, character, setting, and pacing beautifully. It's a crime novel full of twists and suspense as well as an unflinching look at a drug-driven, sexual underworld. It seems to me that Pitts has the ideal temperament to be a crime writer; he's one of those chroniclers who presents behavior but does not judge. Not once in Hustle does he moralize. People do the things they do, and he understands that everyone, as the saying goes, has their reasons.
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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. A film nut as well as a writer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His Martinique-set crime novel, Spiders and Flies, is available now from Harvard Square editions at Amazon, B&N, and wherever books are sold.