By Tom Pitts
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Snubnose Press, March 28, 2014
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
If you are a "chicken hawk" looking for a cheap lay, you hit up the Polk Gulch in San Francisco: youthful male prostitutes congregate in doorways and alleys, looking for cruisers with cash who want to pound a tight asshole or get their Johnson mumbled around in a young runaway's mouth.
Most of these rent-boys are on the hook, easing the misery of their pathetic existence by smoking crack or its blue-collar counterpart, methamphetamine, shooting smack or doing multi-drug doses like the cocaine-heroin speedballs that turned John Belushi into 200 pounds of inedible meat.
They lie, cheat and steal to get their daily fix. Some try to blackmail the marks they screw, looking for a big payday. Others work their Johns on a regular basis, seeking the modicum of security offered by a steady "date" who will give them enough to pay their rent and buy their dope.
Donny, the central character in Tom Pitts' excellent first novel, Hustle, is one of them.
Donny and his buddy, Big Rich, are Polk Street tricksters who are sick of The Life. Donny is tired of sucking wealthy commuters for rent and dope money; Rich has a wife and daughter in Oregon. Both want out, but can't figure a way to leave.
As Pitts puts it, "Donny and Rich's lives ground on in a short cycle of copping, getting high, turning tricks, hiding from the world, then getting sick. Their time was marked by hours, not days."
|Author Tom Pitts|
Their ticket out is a long-shot at best: Rich has an elderly sugar daddy named Gabriel Thaxton, a wealthy criminal defense lawyer who pays Big Rich to masturbate on him. Rich wants Donny to secretly shoot smart phone vids of Gabriel during one of these sessions and blackmail the lawyer for the money he needs to get off the street.
Donny is dubious but has no better idea. Together, the pair prepares to hustle the older man.
But the two street boys, although shrewd and duplicitous, are bumblers who couldn't find their way out of a porn store video booth with all the lights turned on. They don't realize that Gabriel is already being blackmailed by a vicious psychopath and cold-blooded serial killer named Dustin.
Dustin, it turns out, is working his own scam to rip off the elderly attorney and won't let anything or anyone stand in his way. With Gabriel as his hostage, Dustin disappears.
The two rent boys end up reluctantly joining forces with a former outlaw Biker, Bear, who once was one of Gabriel's clients. Together, the trio explore the underbelly of San Francisco searching for the missing lawyer. The hunt leads them to drug houses, dope dealers, thieves and vermin-infested hotels that cater to the down-and-out.
It is a world that is interwoven, populated by low-life criminals whose lives revolve around drugs. As Pitts puts it, writing from Bear's point of view, "All these fucking tweakers seemed to know each other. Maybe they had clandestine union meetings at some dumpster in an alley someplace."
I spent more than 20 years covering crime in San Francisco for the morning daily, a lot of them in the Tenderloin. I've covered hustlers like Donny and Big Rich, killers like Dustin, dope dealers like "Doctor" Johnny Watson, bikers like Bear and criminal defense attorneys like Gabriel.
I can tell you from personal experience that Pitts has written a book in which he gets everything exactly right; not only that, but he manages to make each of the characters in his story a distinct individual with his own figures of speech, philosophical outlook, back story and personality.
For example, when Rich raises the idea of blackmailing Gabriel, Donny expresses skepticism and the following exchange takes place:
"I thought you said it was a bad idea [Donny said]. That it never worked out."
"Aah," Big Rich held up his finger, "this time we do it right. We get in-convertible evidence. So it's not just my word against theirs."
"Incontrovertible," said Donny.
"Incontrovertible, that's the word."
"Bullshit. That's not how you say it."
"It is. Convertibles are cars."
The hustle that Donny and Big Rich attempt seems credible, as does the scam that psycho killer Dustin is working. The violence in the story is believable. Pitts does a good job of breathing life into his two dope-fiend hustlers and when the story shifts to the point of view of the elderly defense attorney Gabriel, he actually captures the attitude and fear of a much older man.
The novel is steeped in an atmosphere of menace and the pacing is just about perfect: I read more than three-quarters of the story in one three-hour stretch, riveted to my Kindle, unwilling to quit until I reached the very end.
And the ending is perfect, offering just a trace of optimism while making it clear our central character is probably going to screw up again, despite his desire to live a normal life.
Hustle is one of the best noir novels I have had an opportunity to read in recent years. I am looking forward to Pitts' next book with excitement.