“I’m coming out of this alive.”
“Fast” Eddie Felson is the best pool player you’ve ever seen, and he knows it. He has worked his way across the country hustling every last dollar from a pool hall before he moved on to the next town. Now, the rumor is that he has made his way to Chicago to challenge the city’s top pool shark, Minnesota Fats. They say the best hustlers in the world come to Chicago only to leave with empty pockets. They say everyone gets humbled here, and that every hustler who has challenged Fats has walked away from the table with the face of a dead man.
No one hustles their way to a win inside the Storydome, not even Paul Newman.
Two stories enter, one story leaves when The Hustler steps into the Storydome.
The ContendersThe Book Title: The Hustler Author: Walter Tevis Published: 1959 Pages: 223 The Movie Title: The Hustler Director: Robert Rossen Released: 1961 Length: 134 Minutes Starring: Paul Newman as Eddie Felson Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats George C. Scott as Bert Gordon
It should go without saying. There are SPOILERS ahead.
“Fast” Eddie Felson just walked into an empty pool hall with his buddy Charlie. It’s still morning and the real action is a good ten hours off, but Eddie wants the whole city of Chicago (New York, in the movie) to know that he is here. The manager makes it clear that he knows who Eddie is, and that there is no way he’ll be able to hustle anyone in this pool hall. This suits Eddie just fine, because he didn’t come to Chicago to hustle anyone; he came to beat Minnesota Fats in a game of pool, straight-up.
Eventually, Fats makes his way to the pool hall to find Eddie waiting for him. The games go back and forth, with Fats staring out ahead, then Eddie coming up with a few games in a row. The sun rises and then sets again, with the two pool hall kings continuing to battle it out on the felt. After nearly 35 hours of playing, Eddie is up over eighteen grand and Charlie is begging him to call it quits, but Eddie knows that you don’t beat Minnesota Fats until he stops playing. A few hours later, as Eddie is finishing his second bottle of whiskey, the game is over. Eddie is completely out of money, Fats has taken it all from him, and Eddie is forced to leave the pool hall drunk, broken, and with the face of a dead man.
That may seem like the whole story right there, but it is only the catalyst. The real story of the Hustler is after Eddie has lost everything and he is trying to scrounge up enough cash to challenge Fats again.
In both the novel and the movie, it seems like you can tell where the story is going to go after reaching this part. You assume that after his miserable defeat that Eddie will learn a lot about himself, become stronger, and then challenge Fats again. This time he’ll win, and in the end he’ll be a better, stronger person than he was at the beginning of the story. You assume this because you’ve seen this kind of story a hundred times before.
Thankfully, the story is not that simple.
Does Eddie challenge Fats again at the end of the story, and does he win? Yes, but it’s really hard to say that he is a better person because of it.
So much of this story takes place away from the game of pool. After Eddie loses, he somehow ends up at a bus station where he meets a woman named Sarah. The two form this kind of co-dependence on one another, and they spend much of their time together drunk. Eddie develops this kind of loser mentality, where he sets himself up for failure and then runs back to Sarah so that she can share in his misery.
There is a decent chunk of the story that is rather morose and depressing as you watch these two characters become more and more emotionally handicapped. But right as things look their worst, Sarah starts to turn herself around. She stops drinking — or at least she stops constantly drinking — and we see that she actually wants something more from Eddie than someone to wither away with.
However, the world of the Hustler is not a happy one, and just as it seems that there is hope for Eddie and Sarah, Eddie’s new manager – Bert Gordon – crushes Sarah emotionally, to the point where she takes her own life.
In the end, Eddie only plays Fats again to prove that he can, in fact, beat him, but once he does he walks away rather unsatisfied. Eddie’s real loss had nothing to do with the game of pool, so there was really nothing that it could have given him.
I enjoyed that, in the novel,Walter Tevis is pretty straightforward with the story. We have a good sense about who the characters are before we ever meet them, and we’re into the story because of our interest in these characters. That being said, to me the novel is a bit blah. That’s not the technical term for it, I just don’t know any other way to put it. As I was reading it, I found that my mind wandered often. Yes, I found the characters interesting. And yes, I liked that Tevis didn’t take the story where I expected it to go, but I couldn’t really immerse myself in the novel.
That really wasn’t the case with the movie. They have the same story, but at the same time it feels so different because Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and Piper Laurie make the story engrossing. I am going to admit my bias here — I have seen this movie before, and it’s one of my favorite old movies. Every time I watch it, I want to head to a pool hall and take up smoking, because Newman makes them seem really cool. Then again, Paul Newman makes everything seem cooler.
Winner of Storydome: The movie, via Paul Newman
Is it really fair to crown the movie the winner simply because Paul Newman is in it?
I will admit that I might have been leaning towards picking the movie before I even read the book, so that might have influenced my decision a little bit. But come on! This is Paul Newman we’re talking about. If you don’t get it, watch the movie, then watch Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Color of Money, and Road to Perdition. Then you’ll get why the movie won.
And no, Paul Newman didn’t hustle this win, he earned it.
Disagree with my opinion? Tell me about it in the comments section.
I’ll be back next week as a new story steps into the Storydome.
— Tim Fitzpatrick
Editor’s Note: Tim Fitzpatrick is an English major at Lewis University with a focus on creative writing. Tim is 26 and is only just now starting college. He has always enjoyed telling a good story, and he is at Lewis to learn to do that better.