An Introduction to The Hustler by Walter Tevis
written by Chris Enss
Fast Eddie Felson, the lead character in author Walter Tevis’ book The Hustler, knew the deep abiding meaning of the game of pool. In his words, “It was important who won and who did not win. Always. Everywhere. To everybody….” Published in 1959, The Hustler was Tevis’ first successful novel.
Born in San Francisco in February 1928, Tevis began his career in the early 1950s, writing for science fiction magazines. He received a Master of Arts degree in English literature from the University of Kentucky and went on to become an English professor at Ohio State University. Tevis regularly talked with his class about his days working at a pool hall after he returned home from serving time in the Navy during WWII. The exploits of his days shooting pool and gambling found their way into his book The Hustler.
The Hustler is an off-beat suspense novel about a pool room hustler who comes to the big town to make a bid for the pool shark championship of the world. Fast Eddie Felson is the name of the hustler in Tevis’ book. Young, slim, and innocent looking, Eddie travels around the country making a good and not exactly dishonest living. He’s a good pool player, one of the best, so naturally, he gravitates to Chicago to play against Minnesota Fats, the acknowledged master of straight pool. After winning $18,000 from Minnesota Fats, Eddie starts to lose, and after forty hours of continual play, he collapses on the floor, having lost virtually everything.
Desperate for money, Eddie hustles a small game in a tough section of town, wins some money but gets his thumbs broken by the loser’s friends who have no use for hustlers.
Eddie finally makes a comeback after learning about the art of winning from a professional gambler named Bert, who also becomes his manager and traps him in the pool-playing world for life.
In 1961, The Hustler was made into a film starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. The Academy Award winning film is considered a motion picture classic. Not long after the success of the movie, Tevis gave up teaching and devoted himself to writing fiction full time. In addition to writing short stories for The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, and Redbook, Tevis wrote the books The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Color of Money, which was a sequel to The Hustler.
Recognized as one of the most popular novelists of his generation, Tevis’ work is honest and unpretentious. The Hustler is vividly written, fast paced, and above all highly readable. When it came to The Hustler Tevis lived what he wrote. Perhaps that’s why he could write “To love the game itself is a fine thing; it is loving the art you live by.”