'Hustler Days,' 'Hustler' Night
Alamo and local author pair up with pool
Two years before Hud Bannon, six years before Lucas Jackson, eight before Butch Cassidy, and 12 before Henry Gondorff, there was "Fast" Eddie Felson, a role finding Paul Newman with the kind of cool that would portend them all, this one loud, cocky, dark, bright, beautiful, desperate, quiet, destructive, and noble. The Hustler is almost too fine a film: precise in cinematography and plot, unapologetically deliberate with its acting and pace, and as cerebral as it is accessible. With pool as its pivot, this should come as no surprise. Upon its release in 1961, it set off a tremendous American embrace of the game that still appeals to thinking as well as drinking men and women, and in R.A. "Jake" Dyer's new book, Hustler Days: Minnesota Fats, Wimpy Lassiter, Jersey Red, and America's Great Age of Pool (Lyons Press, $22.95), The Hustler is exactly, appropriately, where the author decides to open. "There's a scene during the first part of that film where Jackie Gleason faces Paul Newman," Dyer said in a recent interview. "Felson's road manager, Charlie, is smoking one cigarette after another. The butts form in a big pile at his feet. I think my eyes may have actually rolled back in my head I was so struck by the coolness of it all." Also appropriate is the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown's pairing of a Saturday night screening of the Oscar-nominated picture -- directed by Robert Rossen and based itself on a novel by Walter Tevis -- with an appearance by Dyer, who attended the University of Texas and now covers the Capitol for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The Austin Chronicle: What sparked you to tackle Hustler Days? Was it in fact The Hustler? Was it your own love of pool? How did the sociologist Ned Polsky figure in?
Jake Dyer: It was my own love of pool, which can be traced to both films -- The Hustler and its sequel, The Color of Money. I actually saw The Color of Money first, while I was living abroad in Costa Rica during the late Eighties. It was also there, in Costa Rica, that I first discovered poolroom culture. I realized hanging out in San José poolrooms that the men there had their own set of rules and aspirations. Later on ... some friends of mine from Austin handed me an old dog-eared copy of Ned Polsky's Hustlers, Beats, and Others during my college years at UT. It's probably been 20 years or so since I first came across the book, but I'm still fascinated by it. Polsky writes about American pool hustlers, but he unwittingly also describes a culture that I witnessed firsthand during my travels in Central America. Polsky's book is about the culture of the permanent bachelor -- and how that culture got caught up with the culture of the poolroom. ... I ended up befriending Polsky during my research for my own book -- we would exchange notes and phone calls. He died just a few years ago.
AC: Reviewers have talked about the cinematic quality of your book. Could you talk about bringing these characters -- some aspiring to be larger than life, some just trying to make a living -- to life on the printed page? Were you engaging in some hustle yourself, stretching these folks to fit a certain narrative expectation?
JD: Hmmm. Me, a hustler? I'm flattered. But you probably have a point. As I plowed through the research, I would see certain ironies and patterns related to the lives of the book's three central characters. I would then use real-life dramatic events to help illustrate those patterns. An example: A review of Jersey Red's life indicates that the hustler -- despite his giant ego and hot temper -- was actually quite frail and somewhat ashamed of his past. I would then report details of Red's past that helped illustrate and explain that frailty.
AC: The short life span that the pool craze enjoyed is a sort of mournful theme underlying your book and in watching The Hustler in retrospect. Why do you think the game flourished after the film's 1961 release? And why has the game retreated back into the shadows of late-night ESPN and strip-mall bars?
JD: Along with The Hustler, two other key events came together to keep the pool renaissance alive for at least a decade. First off, the Johnston City tournaments -- a sort of hustlers' jamboree held every year in southern Illinois -- kept pool in front of the public. The other big event was the rise of Rudolf Wanderone Jr., the self-promoting pool shark who convinced the world that he was the real-life model for The Hustler's Minnesota Fats character. Wanderone came to embody the romance of pool hustling. And he was so entertaining that the media couldn't keep away. I also think Americans wanted some escape -- or at least the fantasy of escape -- from their suburban lives. I think American angst fueled the renaissance. As far as the game's retreat, I actually don't think it's as bad as all that. The sport, undeniably, is nowhere near as popular as it was in the 1960s, but it still does enjoy some measure of support. And it's in a far better place than it was during the 1950s.
The Hustler, with Jake Dyer in attendance, screens at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado, 476-1320) on Saturday, Jan. 10, 7pm. For tickets and more information, see www.drafthouse.com.