In her third novel, Vancouver writer Billie Livingston vividly recreates the world of mid-1980s Burnaby, B.C. One Good Hustle follows Samantha (Sammie) Bell, the sharp-tongued 16-year-old daughter of a couple of con artists, through a difficult summer between grades 11 and 12.
Sammie’s card shark father, Sam, is painfully absent. Marlene, Sammie’s pill-popping, alcoholic mother, is deeply depressed and threatening suicide. In an act of self-preservation, Sammie goes to stay with her friend Jill and her parents. Sammie finds herself caught between the straight, Christian ideals of her pseudo–foster family and the shady but alluring world of her hustler parents and their ramshackle group of so-called friends.
The backstory is so steeped in the lingo of hustlers and grifters that some readers might need to consult a dictionary of slang, but Livingston makes the plot clear: after a botched heist lands Sam in jail, Marlene relies on welfare and increasingly messy hotel hustles to get by.
It is to Livingston’s credit that most of the novel’s characters are nuanced and multi-dimensional. Sammie doesn’t drink or do drugs, but she scams money from drugstores to pay her way through driving school. Jill and her mother are gossipy and hypocritical, but caring. Sammie’s churchy almost-boyfriend, Drew, is loyal but flawed. Only Lou, Jill’s prison-guard father, is depicted as thoroughly wholesome.
Livingston’s use of the first-person point of view is the strongest aspect of the book, with Sammie’s voice – alternately tough, sensitive, sarcastic, and sweet – lingering after the story is through. “Straight people don’t like to admit it but they work with jerks they don’t like and they sell situations they don’t believe in every day to make a buck,” she reasons at one point. “If you step back and squint you realize that most legit businesses are working a hustle too.” Things wrap up too quickly between Sammie and her parents (and between Sammie and Drew), but this is a small complaint about an otherwise enjoyably fast-paced summer read.