Sammie Bell is sixteen years old and has just hustled her way into living in the basement of her friend Jill’s house.
She has already been there for two weeks before Jill’s mom even started asking questions, and, then, Sammie knows just what to say to gain the woman’s sympathy and extend her stay.
She has learned these tricks from her mother and her father, but just as they sometimes work to her advantage, they confuse and complicate things too.
That’s particularly true now. For her mother, Marlene, is falling apart; she is disassembling. And just when Sammie is trying to make something new for herself, wanting to suss out what is authentic about her life, her identity.
“I feel like a stuffed animal. White cotton in my eyes and mouth, clogging my whole skull, spilling out of me. I can’t remember how to talk. If I could make words right now, I’d say, Who are you again? And who am I?”
But Sammie isn’t cute and cuddly like a stuffed animal, simply mute and inert.
In response to years of living with her mother’s alcoholism and criminal behaviour, she has adapted survival techniques, many of them designed to keep people at a distance (including readers).
Nonetheless, Sammie’s determination to reach beyond the model her mother has provided for her cultivates a degree of sympathy with readers.
“All these jerks want to do is get drunk and stoned. Like Marlene. What they don’t get is, if you act like Marlene, you end up like Marlene. Fucked up and lonely and broke.”
Just as Sammie’s relationships can be push-pull in nature, the reader’s relationship with her is much the same. At times, one is impatient with her impulses and her attitude; at other times one wants to pull her in and hold her close.
Sammie, too, has this kind of ambivalence about herself (and, for that matter, about other characters too). But it becomes clear that she is not the only hustler in the story; other people hustle in their own way, too. They tell lies to protect the feelings of family and friends, mislead people to achieve advantages, and neglect problematic parts of life in favour of an easier “solution”.
There are scenes in which Sammie’s confusion and anger and fear play out overtly, in which the reader’s sympathies are directly engaged. But there are many more in which readers are left to decipher things for themselves.
For instance, sometimes she openly criticizes her mother’s actions and decisions, but other times she just silently observes a notepad with the messages that Jill and her mother have shared to let each other know about telephone calls each of them has missed during the week, or she overstuffs her mouth with pancakes and corn syrup trying to get full.
Nonetheless, although much of the story is dark, there’s some outright humour as well. When Jill’s dad says that she will be able to use his truck when she gets her license, she answers: “‘I have boobs…I don’t have to drive.’ Lou looks at his kid with dismay as he chews.” (Okay, that’s still kind of sad. Right.)
Billie Livingston has a good eye for irony, which also offers the readers some entertainment. Sure there is so “much dirt and misery and meanness” but Lionel Richie is singing “Endless Love” on the radio. And readers only know this because Sammie sees fit to notice it herself.
One Good Hustle is rooted in the solid evocation of Sammie’s voice and character, but there is some detailing to reward the attentive reader.
For instance, Sammie tells a joke about Little Red Riding Hood, which subtly recalls the archetypal meaning of the old tale, a coming-of-age tale filled with temptation and the forbidden and the exhilarating/terrifying unknown. (I couldn’t help but think of Woods Wolf Girl.)
And the shifts in time are subtly infolded, as Sammie remembers events from her younger years, sparked by incidentals that have come to symbolize something much more significant: cake, a pair of jeans, or a perfume vial. It’s difficult to make these transitions smoothly, and they are done very well.
Overall, however, Billie Livingston’s novel offers a straightforward narrative. It would have been interesting to have had Sammie’s habit of hustling somehow impact readers directly. To have had readers accept something of her truth that was later subverted. But, then, that would have been a different Sammie.
As it is, One Good Hustle is a strong character study and a credible depiction of an often-sad-but-occasionally-redemptive world, but its success with readers depends wholly on their engagement with Sammie.