David Heska Wanbli Weiden recommends Wesley Browne’s Hillbilly Hustle (West Virginia University Press, 2020)

Hillbilly Hustle by Wesley Browne is a delight. It’s the story of Knox Thompson, the owner of a struggling Kentucky pizza restaurant who’s pressured into buying a large quantity of marijuana after a poker game. After deciding to sell the cannabis in order to keep his restaurant afloat, Knox’s woes multiply, and he’s forced into a confrontation with Burl Spoon, the local drug kingpin and crime boss. The novel is a seamless blend of authentic and appealing characters, a compelling plot, and plenty of dark humor. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the pizza business, the Richmond, Kentucky area, and, especially, the intricacies of hold ‘em poker. Here’s a gem from the first page:  “After finding out about the [poker] game from one of his Porthos regulars, Knox couldn’t resist. It was said to be frequented by a herd of donkeys spilling money, and that proved to be true, but making money and keeping it aren't the same thing. Especially not in Jackson County.”

The adroit mixture of great characters and laugh-out-loud prose reminded me James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, one of the underrecognized gems of the mystery and suspense field.  Hillbilly Hustle is one of those books that doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre, but instead borrows from literary, comic, Southern, and crime fiction and manages to transcend them all. While I suspect this novel will gain a cult following over time, it deserves a wider audience now. I loved this book and its vivid characters. Check it out.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, is the author of the novel Winter Counts, nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America. The novel was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, main selection of the Book of the Month Club, and named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, Amazon, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and other magazines. He’s the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, a Ragdale Foundation residency, the PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship, and was a Tin House Scholar. He’s professor of Native American studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver and serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Western Colorado University. He lives in Denver, Colorado, with his family.