Right up front, I will admit that any novel that begins with a boy’s fascination with a Dwight Yoakam song and ends, years later, with that same young man singing another Dwight Yoakam song to a crowd of a couple of thousand people, has already scored some major points with me. Jason Skipper’s debut novel Hustle does exactly that. But more importantly, what comes between those two scenes is one of the most gut wrenching coming-of-age stories that I have read in a long while.
Chris Saxton was born into a family of con men. His grandfather and his father have, more often than not, made their living by moving from one scam to the next until it finally catches up with them. Ten-year-old-Chris’s introduction to his grandfather comes on the day he and his father kidnap the old man from his Florida shack so they can drive him back to Texas to dry him out before his alcoholism can kill him. He has already had to deal with the years his father spent in prison, but, in a way, the day Chris meets his grandfather is the day he starts to grow up.
Hustle is told in a series of vignettes that focus on Chris’s life between the ages of 9 and 18, years during which the only constant is his love for music and his guitar. His rural upbringing in1980s Texas is not an easy one. Early on, Chris is expected to help earn his keep by working with his grandfather selling questionably-fresh shrimp by the side of the road – even if all his participation does is provide more hours of free time for his woman-chasing father to barhop. As his family struggles and hustles for its very survival, Chris often finds himself feeling the brunt of the frustrations caused by the economic desperation of the adults closest to him.
In Chris Saxton, Jason Skipper has created an unforgettable character. Here is a young man with more moral strength and courage than any of the adults in his everyday world. He sees his father and grandfather for what they are, and does not buy the self-delusional images they try so hard to create for themselves. Emotionally closest to his mother, Chris understands that her poor parental decisions stem from her desperation to create a secure home for herself before she loses her looks. He understands – but her weakness hurts him deeply. Through it all, he sees his music as the best, maybe the only, chance to escape the life into which he was born.
Hustle is a good story – and Jason Skipper tells it well. Having myself spent a bit of time selling fresh shrimp from a pickup truck alongside an old man, I was particularly taken with the realism of the scenes in which Chris and his grandfather do the same ( scenes this vividly painted surely must come from Jason Skipper’s own life experience). Throw in a slew of wild, but believable, secondary characters and you have a very fine debut novel here, one of the best reading surprises I have had in 2011.
Rated at: 5.0