Thursday, August 30, 2012

One Good Hustle

Stories about con artists, hustlers, and small-time thieves are usually pretty happy go lucky. I remember picking up Paper Moon as a kid and being totally fascinated by the world of tricks and sleight of hand that saw a father and daughter travelling around the country to make their fortune. For the most part, their crimes seemed victimless, and you just knew everything was going to work out. If this is what you're expecting when you pick up Billie Livingston's new novel One Good Hustle, prepare yourself: her perspective on cons is totally different.

The novel is the story of Sammie, the 16-year-old daughter of hustlers, and takes place during the summer between Grades 11 and 12. Sammie is living at a friend's – almost more of an acquaintance at the beginning – because her mother is depressed, suicidal, and has substance abuse problems. When Sammie decided she couldn't take it anymore (her mother could kill herself, but she didn't want to be there to watch), she left. Of course, that doesn't mean she isn't thinking about her mother, or worrying about her, or wondering where her dad is (her parents split up years ago), or hoping he'll come and take her away with him.

As the story unfolds, Sammie takes us through what happened. As readers, we're in her head, so when she remembers or mulls or rants, it's to herself, we're just there to hear it. The affect of this is a kind of unfiltered view of her life, and more specifically, her moods, personalities, and memories. Sammie has a lot going on – her childhood wasn't easy, and her parents aren't easy, and she's living with a family that has a totally different life than hers, and that isn't easy – and Livingston handles all of this with a great deal of style. This is not a lessons book, or some sort of teen case study, this is a kind of gritty realism that pops with humour and insight and confusion.

Part of this is because Livingston based aspects of this story on her own life. That isn't to take anything away from her writing (why it would, I'm not sure, but anyway), but I do think that experience gave her insight into the emotions of a girl who is, in a way, waking up to how her life is both totally messed up and complicated, and also not a disaster. For example, Jill (Sammie's friend) and her parents seem on the surface to be a perfect, functional family, but as Sammie spends more time with them she realizes some of their values are pretty strange – Jill's mom, for example, tells Sammie not to wear revealing clothes or else she might be the cause of someone else's rape, a comment Sammie finds preposterous.

One Good Hustle is a generous book and a quick read, and Livingston's writing is strong and clear and without pretense. For a kid raised by hustlers, Sammie is remarkably straightforward and well adjusted, which isn't to say she doesn't have issues (she is a teenager, after all), but rather that there is more to the novel than a simple coming of age story. It's complicated, I guess, but that suits this book just fine.

One Good Hustle
by Billie Livingston
First published in 2012 (cover image shown from RandomHouse edition)

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