When we first meet Knox Thompson, the protagonist in Wesley Browne’s astounding debut novel Hillbilly Hustle, he’s a 40-something, slightly overweight nobody, desperate to make a quick cash haul at a backroom poker game. Knox’s intentions are honorable: to raise enough funds to help his parents through their own financial struggles and to help stabilize his tenuous pizza operation, Portho’s Pizza, near the Eastern Kentucky University campus in Richmond. But as he soon learns, the best-laid plans often go awry.
“Knox first crossed paths with the man who would ruin him at a poker game above the arcade in downtown McKee, a forsaken place he had made it a point to avoid,” writes Browne. “He knew better than to go to that sketchy-ass game … but he had come to rely on poker winnings to keep his pizza shop and his parents afloat.”
Bad choice No. 1.
Several hours into the game, after winning a sizable take, Knox intends to cut and run. Enter Burl, “a little fellow with painstakingly combed slick dark hair,” whom Knox reads “as the table boss in more ways than one.” Before Knox can get to his car with his take, Burl offers him a deal he can’t refuse. The arrangement is simple: Knox walks out of the poker game in one piece and with a pound of marijuana to sell out of his pizza joint, while Burl keeps Knox’s cash.
Knox makes his second bad choice.
So continues a string of ill-advised choices that serve to put Knox deeper and deeper in a hole, both financially and personally. Browne’s hapless hero is part Walter White from the Breaking Bad TV series and part Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski from the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski: a man down on his luck, caught up in his own inept schemes and blind ambitions, often resulting in situations that are alternately violent and absurd.
Before long, Knox is selling weed from his pizza joint on a regular basis and repeatedly visiting Burl for fresh merchandise. Even when he has put his parents on solid financial ground again and the pizza business appears to be thriving, Knox is unable to turn away from his profitable side business — not that Burl is about to let him.
Knox, meanwhile, enjoys a romance with a new-in-town tattoo artist, Darla. Life couldn’t be better.
Until, as you might expect, Browne pulls the rug out from under him. A run of bad luck and mishaps leaves Knox in dire straits and even further in debt to the menacing Burl. Things don’t work out so well with Darla, either.
At his lowest, even Knox’s best friend is unable to console him. “You mean to tell me my life’s not miserable,” Knox says. “I’ve got a guy threatening to kill me … threatening my family. … I’m about to lose a business I spent fifteen years building — my whole livelihood — but you’re telling me my life’s not miserable. How do you figure?”
At just over 250 pages, Browne has created a whip-smart story of good intentions gone bad, painful consequences made from poor choices, and the usual naked ambition and greed of stupid men.
Even Burl can’t help but be astounded by Knox’s ineptness: “I never seen anything like you. You’re smart, you just aint’ good at thinking,” he says. “I never seen no one make worse decisions.”
But for all of that, you can’t help but root for the jerk and hope that he will ultimately see the error of his ways and change for the better. That’s the gist of any good story, but it’s also a testament to the power of Browne’s storytelling prowess that he can create an unforgettable, flawed protagonist that makes you keep turning pages long into the night.
Robert Frazier is a former Middle Tennessee newspaper reporter and editor now working as a book reviewer and aspiring screenwriter. He has served as a script reader for screenwriting competitions at both the Austin Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. He lives in La Vergne.
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