Street hustler Donny is wise to be concerned about that path he’s walking. Though relatively new to the life of a male prostitute turning tricks with gay men in order to fund his drug habit, he’s already been in long enough to know it’s a fast track to a dead end. Donny doesn’t have to look far to see what lies in store for him, after all.
Big Rich, Donny’s friend and mentor of sorts, has been in the life longer than any of the other guys working the corner in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin where Donny plies his trade. And while Donny’s learned some valuable lessons for staying alive and getting over from Rich, there’s no denying they’re both going nowhere fast, spinning their wheels waiting for the next high or the next john, whichever happens to be on deck.
The opportunity to escape the boomerang cycle of drugs-hooking-drugs presents itself in the form of Gabriel Thaxton, one of Rich’s routine customers. Thaxton is a wealthy, well-known defense attorney, one Rich is convinced will be willing to pay handsomely to keep his proclivity for young, gay men a secret.
Rich’s plan is for the two of them to use a cell phone to record Thaxton in a compromising position, then threaten to upload it to YouTube unless they’re paid off—a seemingly solid, if sleazy, plan. It would have been, that is, if Thaxton weren’t already so far down the blackmail rabbit hole he’s willing to go to extreme measures to get out from under it, enlisting the help of a biker ex-client of his to do whatever it takes to remove the threat. If they don’t watch their step, Donny and Rich may just end up collateral damage in a situation far beyond their control.
First things first. Hustle is not a read for the meek. The subject matter tackled—drug addiction, male prostitution and blackmail, all of which are explicitly depicted—is both challenging and, at times, disturbing. Author Tom Pitts pulls no punches, uses no filters, and offers no apologies or excuses for the behavior of the people who inhabit the world of Hustle. The result is a strikingly stark, in no way glamorized look at drug addiction and two young men doing whatever it takes to feed that monster. Having said that, there is still an undeniable beauty to Hustle, an unvarnished truth that shines through in the prose Pitts brings forth, at times stripped down and raw, other times lyrical and hauntingly poetic.
And while Hustle is far from a feel-good story, its characters are self-aware, not so far gone that they don’t realize there is something more, and better, out there. Donny, in particular, seems to get the big picture. Though deep in the grasp of addiction, he’s still smart enough to understand that, even if he finds a way out, the things he’s doing now represent a massive boulder dropped into the lake of his life, the ripples from which will be both widespread and long-lasting.
“I’m afraid,” said Donny, “that some of these things, these tricks, ain’t never gonna leave my head. I’ll have a girlfriend, be far away from here, from the city, have a job, all the shit a normal person has, and…”
“And it”ll still be there, stuck in my head.”
Pitts is honest enough not to offer easy solutions or trite, Hollywood endings—things, in fact, do not end well for more than one character–but he has crafted his characters so well, humanized them, such that you hope for at least the possibility of redemption, and are left with the understanding it is something that all but the most wicked are worthy of and deserve a shot at. And that, folks, is the mark of some mighty powerful storytelling.