After reading THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, I grabbed Walter Tevis’s THE HUSTLER, which promised to do for pool what he’d done for chess, which is to say, lovingly portray it as a field of character, a personal test of wills, high-stakes drama, and a kind of violence. THE HUSTLER delivers, though its protagonist Fast Eddie Felson isn’t as likeable as Beth is in THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, and I just didn’t root for him the same way.
It’s a simple story. After building up a reputation and some cash that would buy him high-stakes games against the best, Fast Eddie arrives in Chicago and beelines to Bennington’s, home field for the best pool players in the country. There, he goes head to head with Minnesota Fats, whom he can beat on the table but perhaps not in a contest of character and wills. Losing everything, he must dig deep not only to raise fresh capital but also find the character and inner strength to go the distance. Along the way, he meets a young woman struggling with her own self-esteem.
Tevis writes about pool the way he wrote about chess in THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, producing vivid imagery and descriptions and tension to the point of fetish, such that even if you don’t love or play the game yourself, you deeply appreciate it. In fact, this was apparently the first novel written about the game. Regardless of what you think about pool, everybody loves a good sport story about a person who must dig deep to prove themselves and triumph in a difficult game, and many readers find satisfaction in a good story about, well, work–difficult work done well.
While I loved that aspect of the novel, which served as the plot engine and character arena, I couldn’t root for Eddie the way I did for Beth in THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. Beth was heavily flawed; Eddie is similarly flawed but also kind of a jerk, especially to his love interest, who apparently symbolizes his own self-esteem and character problems. As a result, while I deeply cared if Beth beat Borgov, I didn’t care as much if Eddie beat Minnesota Fats. Nonetheless, I loved the ride and the deep dive into the game. If you enjoyed THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, check it out. And if you like this novel, you might want to check out the movie adaptation starring Paul Newman.