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Giller Long-list Nominee Review: One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston

From award-winning writer Billie Livingston, an unsparing novel of loyalty and survival that is fierce, sharp and funny even when it’s breaking your heart.
The child of 2 con artists, 16-year-old Sammie Bell always prided herself on knowing the score. But now she finds herself backed into a corner. After a hustle gone dangerously wrong, her mother, Marlene, is sliding into an abyss of alcoholic depression, spending her days fantasizing aloud about death–a goal Sammie is tempted to help her accomplish. Horrified by the appeal of this, Sammie packs a bag and leaves her mother to her own devices.
With her father missing in action, she has nowhere else to go but the home of a friend with 2 parents who seem to actually love their daughter and each other–and who awkwardly try to extend some semblance of family to Sammie. Throughout a long summer of crisis among the normals, Sammie is torn between her longing for the approval of the con-man father she was named for and her desire for the “weird, spearmint-fresh feeling” of life in the straight world. Sammie wants to be normal but fears that where she comes from makes that beyond the realm of possibility.
One Good Hustle chronicles 2 months in Sammie Bell’s struggle with her dread that she is somehow doomed genetically to be just another hustler.

Note: In an effort try to familiarize myself with as many of the Giller Long-list nominees, I’ll be reviewing and reminding myself of some of the titles I’ve read off the list. For my review of “Everybody has Everything” by Katrina Onstad, please click here.

I can’t speak from personal experience, but being the child of con artists certainly seems to provide you with some really great background for future novels – or at least for some very interesting therapy sessions. Several friends and I were offered the great pleasure of having lunch with Billie Livingston a few weeks ago, and there was lively discussion about how much influence such a background – and Livingston’s own – had on a person as a teen and as an adult. Her resulting story, “One Good Hustle”, is a novel that will break your heart, even as you laugh at Sammie’s observations and experiences.

Sammie, the main character of the novel, is a teenager who is trying to figure out her role in the world after her father’s departure and her mother’s breakdown. As a matter of personal survival, she removes herself to her friend’s house; in doing so, she begins to understand that she wants more out of her life – what that entails, however, she still hasn’t entirely discerned for herself. While she longs for more connected relationships, she knows hasn’t had the experience to know how to build and maintain them. She mocks the relationship between Ruby and Lou, her friend Jill’s parents, but also recognizes that their commitment to each other is something powerful and unfamiliar. Over time, she comes to appreciate what they mean to each other and how they draw strength from their relationship; it parallels the companionship that Sammie wants to have with her father.

“What must it feel like to be Ruby, to have Lou watching out for you all the time? A person wouldn’t have to be so careful, wouldn’t have to keep their antennae so pricked…. You wouldn’t have to be big around Lou; you could afford to just let yourself be small.” ~ page 226

Sammie, like the other characters in the novel, is wonderfully written and multidimensional. She’s an everyday teenaged girl, with realistic actions and concerns, and she is written in an authentic voice. Her view of the world is harsh but honest, and she struggles to reconcile her own con background with that of her friend’s. Sammie has made the decision to become the antithesis to her mother, and therefore will not drink nor sleep around. In her mind, Jill is an innocent in the ways of the world; ironically, Jill thinks that Sammie is the innocent due to her lack of dating experience. She’s the ultimate tough cookie, but with a soft centre.

“…You thought what? … You thought I was like her?… I’m not. I’m nothing like her. And I’m nothing like him.”

He looks at me, and then looks away. “I know”, he says. ~ page 114

Livingston also does a great job recreating the world of 1980’s Burnaby, British Columbia. Reading this book brought back vivid memories for me – and like Sammie, not all were entirely positive. Drinking orange crush, getting a driver’s licence and listening to Bonnie Tyler are sense memories, and they evoke a certain time in life when life was a little crazy and the balance between teenage and adult responsibilities wavered, the line ever-changing.

Billie Livingston’s incredible novel, “One Good Hustle” manages to provide both enough detail to hook you in and enough emotion to leave you hanging. It also challenges our ideals of what constitutes “normal”, especially for teens whose ideal versions of normal may not necessarily align with the rest of society. Sometimes life isn’t easy; it’s just life, and you have to roll with what you have. As Sammie observes, “ the whole thing is a rough hustle, this whole damn life.”

One Good Hustle is published by Random House Canada, and is available from Indigo, Amazon and your friendly independent bookstore. ISBN: 9780307359889, 269 pages. 

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