Keeping It Real

Reviewed by Timothy E. Dugdale

So some whiz kid has developed an algorithm that is able to cut to the chase of news feeds. Perhaps the thing can be tweaked because “too long, did not read” is a problem that continues to vex contemporary literature. Too many publishers are pumping out the works of too many MFA graduates who too often have fallen for the dubious charms of George Saunders, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and, of course, Jonathan Franzen. Thus magic realism and hysterical realism ride high, at least until the kid’s algorithm mows them down.

But why wait when you can pick up Billy Livingston’s charming and breezy new work, One Good Hustle. Sammie is a young character forced to grow up too fast. Her father has disappeared and her mother is a con artist limping from hustle to hustle. In the opening part of the book, Marlene spirits Sammie to Vegas to run swindles on lonely gamblers looking for love. Marlene has no scruples but she has drugs that she uses to spike drinks. The problem is she doesn’t put in enough and the guy beats her silly. It falls to Sammie to get her mother back to Vancouver. Marlene begins to slide into boozy despair, Sammie runs away to a friend’s house, and thus begins the summer that changes everything.

Livingston knows she has a winner in this story and refuses to add extra weight to a ride built for speed. Sammie’s voice is lovely. She’s tough and precocious but hardly jaded. This is a book about real people living real lives, lives that are compromised by bad choices and other people trying to impose their bad choices. At a bush party, Sammie takes stock. “Jesus. All these jerks want to do is get drunk and stoned. Like Marlene. What they don’t get is, if you act like Marlene, you end up like Marlene. Fucked up and lonely and broke.” When Sammie does hustle, her heart really isn’t in it. She wants to play it straight. Security and comfort are cool enough for her.

Rawi Hage runs his own race on a bobtailed nag. Carnival is a book carrying the ballast of both magic realism and hysterical realism. That is to say, there are plenty of allegorical motifs awash in a sea of observations, digressions, and general carrying on about this that and the other thing. Through his hard-boiled narrator, a taxi-driver in some imaginary mega-city, we are told the world is a glorious, nasty chaos of noise, filth, fury, and frivolity. At times I felt like I was reading an over-caffeinated Roberto Balano on assignment in Montreal 2050. Even casual conversations are set pieces for profound apercus and existential posturing. Sure, history is full of scoundrels and dodgy rebels and Hage hits us with everything from the French in Algeria, the Portuguese in Angola, and Stokely Carmichael in Oakland. He also wants to take on Islam and its incompatibility with a modernity that is beyond the powers of an antique theology to understand or control. But if you’re going to give me a lecture, please do so through a compelling plot with believable characters moving towards some goal. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the savage detective to solve it? Very late in the book, there is a killing and detectives do show up. But this only seems a pretext for Hage to start winking at The Stranger, The Name of the Rose, and even Howard’s End. Oh that devil, postmodernism.

If this book was half the length, it would double its impact. The best parables are the ones that say their piece quickly and leave you teasing out a truth that is maddeningly just beyond reach. Carnival could easily be a novella and much the better for it. What plot there is would come more into focus and the characters would do less blabbering and ruminating. In his debut novel, DeNiro’s Game, you had a sense that Hage would eventually get to Carnival. He has a tendency to over-write or rather to lard his sentences with pseudo-mystic import. Reality is never just reality; it is infused with deeper connections and meanings that spiral or echo into other realms—past, present, and future.

But sometimes reality itself is the best hustle.

This review “Keeping It Real” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 169-70.

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