Written by Tom Pitts — Donny and Big Rich are male prostitutes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Their lives revolve around getting high. Heroin is what they are addicted to, but if they can’t get that then crack or meth is better than nothing. It means never looking beyond the next fix, and perhaps that is what allows them to perform oral or anal in their tricks’ cars or cheap motel rooms since, as they repeatedly insist, they’re not gay. Recently, though, Donny has begun to wonder what his orientation is, sex having long ago lost its connection to desire for him.
The pair’s back-story is sketchy, though there are hints that Donny left a bad family situation and Rich has a girlfriend and daughter he left behind when he was forced to choose between them and his habit. Whilst Rich and Donny both understand that the life they lead is a dangerous one – overdose, suicide and violence being numbered among ways to die on the streets – neither has admitted to himself that he is caught in a trap.
During one of their street corner conversations, Rich discloses to Donny he has a plan to escape. He has a semi regular client, an old rich criminal lawyer named Gabriel Thaxton, with plenty to lose (or so Rich thinks). He is confident the man can be persuaded into a three-way, and then all Donny would have to do is film Rich having sex with him on his phone and they can surely blackmail him and get enough money to change their lives. Donny, at least when he isn’t high, can see how this scheme could go wrong in a thousand ways, but he doesn’t have any better ideas.
They set up their scheme not knowing that somebody else already has their screws into their target. Thaxton made a mint as a defence attorney and was one of the best in the state at securing an acquittal, but his success came at a price. His career meant looking the other way and defending clients he knew to be guilty and he loathes himself. He started a relationship with one of those clients, Dustin, who now lives with him. Dustin is a charming psychopath who latches onto rich men then kills them after they’ve been bled dry. Thaxton has called in a favour of his own, asking an ex-client, a biker named Bear, to get rid of Dustin. Rich and Donny arrive at Thaxton’s mansion to extort him at the same time as Bear arrives to deal with Dustin, and in the confusion Dustin kidnaps Thaxton, setting into motion their attempts to save the lawyer and perhaps save themselves.
I reviewed the author’s previous novella, Piggyback, at the end of 2012, and was impressed enough to give it four stars, but Hustle is another achievement entirely. Perhaps the longer form suits Pitts because this novel is a wonderful improvement. It must be difficult to write about what are, on the surface at least, unsympathetic characters but Donny is the heart and soul of this book and I found myself totally engaged in his story. Pitts never falls into the trap of being either too cynical or patronising about Donny’s motivations, indeed I haven’t enjoyed such a good portrayal of somebody on the fringes of society since Charlie Stella’s masterful Rough Riders.
In his excellent introduction, author Les Edgerton bemoans the fact that because of its subject matter the book probably won’t find a large audience. That would be such a shame if true because this is the best book I’ve read in a long while.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars