It wasn’t Tonya Harding’s white trash roots that sold me on I, Tonya as a country noir flick, or even the homemade fur coat. It was the intense incompetence of the men tasked with doing the deed against Nancy Kerrigan. Incompetent crooks hold a special place in the subgenre. There are archvillains, to be sure, but country noir storytellers recognize that most criminals are knuckleheads (which certainly reconciles with my own time working in the criminal justice system).
Hillbilly Hustle has a knucklehead for a protagonist, Knox Thompson. He doesn’t stand a chance once he is in the web of archvillain Burl.
Admittedly, when I talk about the role of knuckleheads in country noir, I may be giving too much weight to the work of Elmore Leonard, whose work never fully exemplifies country noir in my mind, no matter how much I like. And the comparison is natural—the cover blurb compares Browne to Leonard.
That and other blurbs name drop Ron Rash, the Coen Brothers, Willie Nelson, Raymond Chandler, Donald Ray Pollack, and John Kennedy Toole. I liked this book a lot, but most of those comparisons are unfair. You don’t want expectations for your next novel or your college basketball team set too high walking in. (On the other hand, I really want to read a country noir Confederacy of Dunces now.)
Knox is good at two things: playing poker and making pizza (he would tell you it’s three things). He is blessed enough to be able to make money at both. Just not enough money. The pizza joint he owns in Richmond, Kentucky is one disaster away from shutting down, despite being an easy walk from EKU. And poker in America just isn’t what it used to be. Casting farther and farther afield for a good game leads him to an exceedingly sketchy game above an arcade in the next county over.
These poker scenes usually end with the protagonist in a world of trouble because he loses a big hand (see: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels). Knox does the only thing worse than lose big—he wins big. The game is run (in more ways than one) by local crime boss Burl, a very bad dude and genuine archvillain who, nonetheless, has good taste and music and is not unreasonable. He offers Knox a choice—Knox can walk away with his money and get robbed or he can use that money to buy a pound of Burl’s pot.
Worse things could happen to Knox than selling pot. Like borrowing money from Burl when disaster does strike at his pizza joint.
They say write what you know. Browne adds a lot of verisimilitude with fine detail on poker, pizza, and, briefly, at a key point near the climax, the law. Presumably Browne knows plenty about all three. He is a practicing lawyer and owns a pizza joint in Richmond, Apollo Pizza (pictured above). Hillbilly Hustle is based in part on the real history of the pizza joint (and wouldn’t I love to hear that story in full!).
Knox as the main character weakens the story. He is too foolish in his choices (if believably in-character in them) to root for. And he is too passive to drive the story once it becomes a matter of extricating himself from a bad situation (on the other hand, he is very good at getting himself into a bad situation and making it worse). Burl, on the other hand, is a great villain. A lesser writer would make him a caricature, but in Browne’s hands his quirks enhance the character rather than define it. Raving maniacs can be fun, but they get old, too. A villain who is not unreasonable is a nice change of pace. Burl doesn’t want to kill Knox, you see, but it would be bad business to not kill someone who doesn’t pay you back. You get the sense Burl is mainly exasperated he went into business with someone so obviously and egregiously incompetent.
All in all, this is a fun little book that I knocked out in two days. It left me hungry for more of Browne’s fiction, and it really left me hungry for some pizza. I drive through Richmond a few times a month now. I stopped in on my latest trip, and Browne doesn’t indeed make a good pie ( got the Appalachian Mountain).
4 of 5 Stars.