“The first time I heard the song ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’ by Dwight Yoakam, I was ten and had just taken my place in a string of con artists that stretched back to my grandfather, Buddy.”
Part family saga, and part coming-of-age novel, Jason Skipper’s superbly nuanced and captivating debut novel is set in 1980s Texas and chronicles in episodic fashion the rough around the edges members of a family who choose to live a resourceful if duplicitous life supported by legally threadbare business practices, and small-time swindling.
The novel opens with young narrator, main character, and aspiring musician Chris Saxton, who we meet working the counter of his father Wrendon’s seafood store in Ft. Worth. Chris’ promising musical talent is both fostered and jeopardized by his shady family. His recently widowed grandfather Buddy, who lives in Florida, is an ex-con hustler who had taken up with a goldigger half his age who put him on a nearly life-ending bender with bourbon while tapping out his bank account.
That’s when Wrendon gets alarmed enough to grab Chris and take an emergency “24-hour vacation.” Father and son hit the two-lane blacktop to retrieve a long-estranged Buddy, duct-taping him to a La-Z-Boy in the back of a van on the Texas rebound – giving Chris the chance to be regaled with anti-Norman Rockwell tales of Wrendon’s boyhood fleece jobs, and to pull his first con on a Louisiana trooper as he takes cues from Buddy. Exhilarated by the success of the whole escapade, the three speed through the night singing out country and western songs. But a pause in Wrendon’s singing draws attention to the fact that he’s “only gripping the wheel and staring intently through the windshield, past the lights and farther down the road than I could see,” as if he’s trying to foresee the future, or at least the next seven years the novel covers.
For it’s not just “a hustle here, a hustle there,” to paraphrase Lou Reed. Notwithstanding the thematic arc of double-crossing as a single purpose in life, the earnestness and incisiveness of the narrative, and the well-considered humanity of actions taken and events executed are really paramount. Buddy and Wrendon display signs, late in their lives, of redemption and yearning to set things right with loved ones they have wronged. But Chris shows, early on, such a wary disinclination to be on the con the rest of his life, that – though he has the smarts but not the money to go to college — he has the intelligence and sensibility to commit himself to an honest goal in a buzz-worthy band that will help his family as well as keep himself on the straight and narrow.
And indeed, Chris has been informed by such a hard-knocks hardscrabble existence, that his insight into people and a persistent approach – perhaps stemming in part from his father’s and grandfather’s inculcation to always look people in the eye and stand your ground when you outright lie to them – almost paradoxically toughened him and lent him a wallop of guilt and compassion. It certainly opened his senses to the hurt and abuse his mother suffered at the hands and words of his father’s cavalier, woman-chasing ways, and caused Chris to make as many amends as he could. At the same time, he’s come to learn a lot about the ways and means of personal relationships, make observations about a variety of personality types who come and go through his and his parents’ lives.
That includes Skipper’s on-target subplot of Chris’ first romantic tie with his girlfriend Josie. Despite initial compatibility that supercedes wealth and class differences, however, Chris must ultimately weigh some decisions about saving himself some grief, an emotional bloodbath or two — against a lifetime lesson constituted in how breaking up being not necessarily hard to do when you assess who and what is important. Is she to join the ranks of others who might just hold Chris back? “I only knew for sure,” he says, “that I was tired of other people deciding for me, who stays and who goes.”
Issues of divorce, alcoholism, drug use, cancer, and AIDS are also interwoven through Hustle, as resonant at times as the scenes of scams and of Chris and his father and grandfather selling shrimp on the side of the road, and as deep and affecting as the characterizations Skipper perceptively portrays in the family bonds and of lifestyles transforming. Though the novel is not exactly a riveting page-chaser, it is a seamlessly absorbing and occasionally rollicking chronicle that is, in its own way, hard to put down, and something you will look forward to picking up again — as soon as you can.
Readers will be eager to see changes in the elder Saxtons, but more importantly, they will be keen to trace the growth and development of Chris as the chapters advance. “I left my bedroom lights offs and stared at the clear night sky, wanting to go, to be anywhere but here,” a restless Chris reflects at one point. “Over the months, the house seemed to have gotten smaller, and now my room felt tiny. Certainly … the world is bigger than this.”
With first-time novelist Jason Skipper, readers can have every confidence that, though it may not always be a smooth transition from cramped quarters, and fascinating detours await, they nevertheless have a more than able conductor through a narrative that reads like life.