THE CON MEN: HUSTLING IN NEW YORK CITY by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton looks at the sociology and psychology of New York’s hustlers. From the small time hustlers selling bottled water or bootleg DVDs on the corner to selling knockoffs, to running numbers, to the cops hustling for a cushy retirement, to Wall Street bankers running Ponzi schemes, everybody has a hustle. The book is interesting, and highlights an assortment of characters, but it’s also disjointed and unsure whether it wants to be nonfiction, true crime, or academic reporting. The book stumbles a bit, and is boring in places, but it will open your eyes to some interesting aspects of hustling.
The authors spend a lot of time with the hustlers, learning about their pasts, their motivations, and their mechanics. To me, this was the best part of the book. I was fascinated to learn how the hustles worked, and how they evolved over time as the laws changed or as policing changed. How do people scam free rent? How do those electronics stores manage to stay in business? How do numbers operations work? This was all great stuff.
But what really disappointed me was that this should be exciting material. This should be funny, sad, dramatic, dangerous. Unfortunately, a lot of the book was boring. Passages would veer into sociological or ethnographical, which is understandable, given the authors’ backgrounds, but it just sapped my interest and forward momentum. It was certainly thought provoking and eye opening. It just didn’t live up to expectations.