I try not to hoard all the books submitted to us for review. Truly, I do try. But sometimes a book comes along that I want to read and review really, really bad. The problem is that sometimes someone else wants that book really, really bad too. That happened with Sutphin Boulevard. Jules and I read this book–not so much together, because we’re separated geographically by a three hour time zone difference, but we burned up the texting apps on our phones along the way in our virtual love-fest of it.
You won’t find a Point-Counterpoint aspect to our reviews. We love this book the same, so the only thing you’ll find different here is our writing and reviewing styles. Suffice it to say, though, that we’re still talking about Mikey and Nunzio, even now.
And when you read as much as we do, that sort of book is a rare beast, indeed.
: Sutphin Boulevard (Five Burroughs: Book One)
Author: Santino Hassell
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages/Word Count: 264 Pages
At a Glance: Go. Buy. Now.
Reviewed By: Jules and Lisa
Blurb: Michael Rodriguez and Nunzio Medici have been friends for two decades. From escaping their dysfunctional families in the working-class neighborhood of South Jamaica, Queens to teaching in one of the city’s most queer friendly schools in Brooklyn, the two men have shared everything. Or so they thought until a sweltering night of dancing leads to an unexpected encounter that forever changes their friendship.
Now, casual touches and lingering looks are packed with sexual tension, and Michael can’t forget the feel of his best friend’s hands on him. Once problems rear up at work and home, Michael finds himself seeking constant escape in the effortless intimacy and mind-blowing sex he has with Nunzio. But things don’t stay easy for long.
When Michael’s world begins to crumble in a sea of tragedy and complications, he knows he has to make a choice: find solace in a path of self-destruction or accept the love of the man who has been by his side for twenty years.
Jules’ Review: Santino Hassell’s writing has been described as ‘gritty’. And it is that, no doubt. But, it’s also full of beauty and heart and wit. And romance. I swooned HARD for these guys. The writing feels authentic, not researched. Santino Hassell is simply a great storyteller, and great storytelling begins with great characters. Lisa and I couldn’t stop talking about this book for weeks after we finished it. One of the things we both kept coming back to was that final scene, and how utterly perfect and gorgeous the writing was. Another thing that was repeated numerous times, though, in varying degrees of flail, depending on the scene being discussed, was how much we just fucking LOVED these characters. They are so real, and there is so much meat to them…we honestly just couldn’t get enough.
Sutphin Boulevard is Michael’s story…Michael’s journey…but I have to start with Nunzio. Gahhhhh, you guys. This man is so far beyond sexy there isn’t even a word for it. Some of the descriptions of him in the book are perfection – made even more perfect by the fact that they are views of him through Mikey’s eyes…
Nunzio’s pale blue eyes flashed the way they did when he was ready to light the fire on his Sicilian temper and go explosive on someone who had pushed him – or someone he cared about – a little too far.
Nunzio had always been the charming one of our duo. The one who could get an allegedly straight frat boy to drop his pants with no more than a suggestive comment and a raised brow.
Aside from being sexy, and fiery, and beautiful, though – even more importantly – he’s also the best person Michael has ever known.
I have so much love for Nunzio – for both of them – but, Nunzio is the tortured hero. The one holding everything together, until it becomes too much even for him. This line…
“I wish I knew what to do to help you. Both of you.”
Heart-wrenching. I loved every single minute he was on the page, and would have loved to be even more inside his head…but to feel his hurt directly through him, instead of just through Michael’s observations, may have put the angst level over the top.
Okay, let’s talk about Michael. As I said above, this is his journey, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s a rough one. Things haven’t been right since leaving his life in Manhattan, and moving back to his childhood home in Queens after his mother passes away. His brother Ray, who, at twenty-five, still can’t get his act together, also lives there and is a constant source of frustration and stress for Michael. We get hints throughout the book that Michael can’t handle his life, at least the turn it has taken in the last year, very well. The way he leans on Nunzio for support, and his constant need to escape, are evident from the beginning. But, once his father shows up out of the blue and announces that he’s moving back in, and that he’s dying, the shit truly hits the fan.
Born of his feeling trapped by his situation at home, Michael’s downward spiral is so tough to read. Clearly on the path to self-destruction, but feeling powerless to stop it, his apathy at times was maddening. How could he not care that he was about to lose his job? How could he put everyone through all of this agony, when even he admitted he knew full well what he was doing? How was he so blind to the rightness of his relationship with Nunzio, when he himself had observed so many times how centered Nunzio made him feel, and how he was the only one who could make him feel that way? Addiction, folks. That’s how.
Santino Hassell nailed the alcoholism/addiction aspect of this story – and, it was a huge part of the story. The emotions, the excuses, the denial, the apathy – not to mention Nunzio’s (and Ray’s) struggle and helplessness at watching it all go down – was soooo realistically and beautifully written.
Michael’s inability to handle the changes in his life, the biggest one, of course, being the shift in his and Nunzio’s relationship, leads him to heavier substance abuse. The heavier substance abuse causes him to withdraw and refuse to face what’s going on with them. His crippling fear of ruining their friendship almost takes everything away from him. Michael knows that he can’t live without Nunzio. He knows deep down that Nunzio is everything – that their relationship is everything – but, he can’t piece it all together because there is so much other ‘clutter’ in his life. He does finally have a moment of clarity in rehab, however, and we get this unforgettable line:
My thoughts had rerouted to an option I’d never even considered before: my best friend, my one-and-only, my fucking soul mate, Nunzio.
Where their friendship is the stuff of legends – completely rock solid, honest, and unbreakable – their romance is even more so. When I tell you these guys are ON FIRE, I mean their chemistry will melt your brain. The sex scenes in this book are BE-YOND hot.
Before wrapping up, I want to quickly touch on a few other important things…
A bit more about Michael: He’s so much more than the angst train he’s on throughout much of this book. He’s passionate, he’s sexy, he’s smart, he’s a fabulous teacher who is great with his students (the classroom/teaching scenes in this book are completely fantastic), and in the moments when he allows himself to be happy with Nunzio, we see how free and alive he can be.
David: Such a complex character. I can’t wait to get to know him better in the next book. Michael refers to him as a “poor, confused baby gay,” and I think that’s him through most of this story. Trying to fit in at McCleary. Trying to work through his mixed attraction and hero-worship of Michael and Nunzio. And, making bad decisions and poorly-handling his current relationship. The author does a good job of keeping him just this side of endearing, while also using him as a source of conflict in the book – but, we don’t truly get to see David, I don’t think, until the brilliant rehab scene when he and Ray go to visit Michael. That scene showed his potential as a friend, and how he could be a positive in Michael’s life. Fabulous stuff.
This book is amazing. Go forth and 1-Click!! You’ll be so glad you did! And now, I’ll leave you with this final thought:
That cover, tho…
Lisa’s Review: This book… I have no idea how to express how much I love this book. Not loved. I’ve said, “I loved this book!” more times than I can count, but there is no past tense going on here. I am actively, right now, in love with this book in an obsessive way. Sutphin Boulevard is not a novel that ends at its final words. It’s a book that makes you want to read it over and over again, and I’ve read its final pivotal and epiphanous scene so many times I almost know it word for word now. That single scene is written so beautifully, is so subtly nuanced with need and emotion and hope, and resonates so deeply within the metaphor of Nunzio and the role he will play in Michael’s recovery from his addiction that I still can’t stop reading it even weeks later.
Sutphin Boulevard is so much more than a simple story of lifelong friends who fall in love. It’s a story of family dysfunction and all the ways in which the burden of becoming his father’s pawn and his adult brother’s keeper pushes Michael Rodriguez to the brink; then, eventually, sends him headlong over the edge into self-destruction. This is the story of a man who is connected so irrevocably to his best friend that his own emotional insight is obscured by the depth of intimacy they share, never imagining it as anything more than friendship. But most of all, this is the story of the crippling weight of problems Michael cannot solve, which leads him to the only solution he can live with, the one solution that could very well kill him. And, tear Nunzio Medici out of his life forever—which could very well produce the same result.
Santino Hassell has introduced subjects both simple and complex in Sutphin Boulevard and then penned a gorgeous novel around them, the story of one man hell bent on self-sabotage, and another whose love for that man is so profound that giving in to his feelings is the only option; giving up is his last—and unacceptable—resort. Hassell sketches an outline of Mikey and Nunzio at the outset of this novel in a blistering scene that would begin the altering of their friendship; then spends the rest of the word count shading and filling the story in, layer by layer, so we understand on a visceral level how deep their bond is, even as Michael is frustratingly unaware of all of Nunzio’s cues. Michael is our unreliable narrator when it comes to his and Nunzio’s relationship, and, in some ways, he is his own antihero while he is everything to everyone else—teacher, son, brother, mentor, friend… He’s so busy being everyone else’s someone that he forgets how to be the hero of his own life.
As the disease of addiction becomes Mikey’s self-fulfilling prophecy, and the only legacy his father left the one son who was supposed to fall far from that family tree, we are plunged along with him into the abyss created by alcoholism and drug abuse, watching while Michael begins to crave the abyss and the oblivion it provides, sinks deeper into the bottle where Nunzio can no longer reach him; nor is Nunzio’s love enough to light Mikey’s way through the darkness of his resentment and despair, his grief and anger, his need to escape his own life and the affliction it’s become.
Santino Hassell makes no clichés of his characters, nor does he shrink from the ugliness of Michael’s downward spiral. We watch as it affects his relationships, his job, and his interactions with David Butler, the man who could have become nothing more than a pastiche of every tedious and predictable stereotype we’ve seen in fiction, but in yet another show of finesse, David’s role extends beyond the predictable to the point that I loved him, much to my surprise; so much so that I’m at Defcon 1 maximum readiness for his book and the exploration of his friendship with Michael’s brother Raymond.
Sutphin Boulevard is a novel that explores the human condition at its best and worst: from hope to heartache, from wreckage to redemption, from family drama to relationship trauma, this story draws you in from the first to the last scenes. Its characters are real, and most of all, they are human, with the inherent frailties and faults that befall us all. Watching Michael’s personal life crumble even as he continues to mentor his students in the job he loves and was meant to do is a testament to the strength and wisdom he gifted to everyone but himself.
I’ll say here what I wanted to say in the first sentence of the first paragraph of this review. Read this book. Just…read it. Ironically, in the best possible way, it is itself deliciously addictive.
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