Friday, December 30, 2016

REVIEW: Sutphin Boulevard by Santino Hassell


I love this novel so hard that I almost don't want to write about how much I love it for fear of not getting it right, or forgetting a crucial detail, or just making a complete ass of myself but reviews are are important to authors-- and I know I'm a peon in the grand scheme of things so this review won't convince anyone of anything but I'm writing it anyway.

When I reflect on why I feel so much love for this novel, I could tick off a ton of details but mainly these two things cover it: how the writing/characters made me feel and its authenticity-- and honestly, I feel like these two things are twisted together in a way that may be hard to separate, so excuse my rambling as I ramble on....

For those who follow me, you know that I'm a high school teacher and while that's not really very important to anyone, it definitely informs the way I read novels that involve high school teachers. I try not to let my personal experiences with teaching get in the way of enjoying a novel that involves teachers but it can be hard when people get it wrong. So, it may be hard to imagine my complete joy at how right Santino Hassell got it--it really is rare (for me, or maybe I'm reading the wrong books), so when a writer accurately and astutely captures the life and feeling of what it's like to be a high school teacher I want to freaking shout it from the mountaintops. For instance he showed truths about the joke of professional development, the way administrators can screw with your schedule the day before school starts, the highs and lows you feel about and for your students when it comes to their education and the baggage they carry, the bureaucracy, the curriculum and the small sacrifices you make daily to make sure you 'cover' things for the stupid tests and still try to give them the education you know they need beyond what the state tests, the gossipy teachers and the way they can help you or hurt you with one well placed comment, the stupid freaking evaluation rubric that never really does anything productive to help you become better...I could go on and on but the point is that the way that teaching is portrayed in Sutphin Boulevard was authentic and accurate and I wish I could find a way to convince Santino Hassell to write more fiction in the teacher world because his jokes, jabs, and truth about what it can feel like on the teacher end of things was something I truly appreciated.  Not only did he include the small details that are so real and authentic to the teaching world (which, by the way, goes to show you that it doesn't even matter if you're teaching in NYC or NoLa, somethings seem to be universal), he created a teacher that breathed life into all of the joys and frustrations of that world. I identified with many of the scenes that he wrote about--from that first day back to school all the way to dealing with the dynamics of teenage personalities and everything in between. And I cannot really capture the anxiety and sorrow I felt for Michael in the last school scene we see him in; all I can say is that the scene where Michael hits rock bottom in his classroom just hit me right in the chest, for many reasons. I seriously could probably write pages on how much I enjoyed the teaching aspect of this novel, but I know that most people probably won't get hung up on it as much as I did so maybe I should switch gears a little. 

This novel made me wonder about how much of Michael's experience the writer shared and how much of it was Santino Hassell's ability to create a reality with his words. The picture he gave me of NYC felt so much more authentic than the pretty, glorified, Central Park feel that so many writers provide. It felt gritty and noisy and disgustingly humid and sweatsoaked or numbingly cold. It felt like love and abandonment. I got a sense of Michael and his family and who he was by the small details he noticed from his window or on his walks and I just know in my bones that he loved his city in a way that only people who've lived there and have that love/hate relationship can have (I feel the same about Nola). Additionally, the way that Hassell wrote about Michael's experiences with his sexual partners and relationships--his encounters in parks and rooftops and bathrooms--and his honesty with what he did and did not want to share with others about his sexuality echoed the stories of my loved ones so very truthfully.

I also felt so much for Michael, thanks to Hassell's word sorcery. Like when he had to tell Nunzio that he couldn't go on vacation, or the feelings he had for his father, brother, and family, or the confusing feelings he had for Nunzio, or all the dizzying emotions he had as he processed what was happening to him and around him weren't fun. They produced a ton of anxiety for me but I guess that's why I liked this novel--I truly felt so much. I respected Michael for not running from all of the difficult conversations he had to have, even when he really wanted to, and I understood when he felt like he had to run from them. When all hell broke loose and he broke down, I identified so much with everything he felt and how he sorted through it afterwards. His inability to see how some of his actions and words impacted Nunzio and Raymond? I soooo got that--I know I've done similar things. And finally, the ending just felt so right. It wasn't this soaring right into the sunset, over the top, sappy thing; it fit the personalities of Michael and Nunzio in its simplicity. It read like truth--the way that many couples pick up with where things left off, or begin a relationship, or sometimes begin again. It made me smile and feel happy and hopeful...and long to see them again. 

All of this to say that I don't say this very often because it's probably irrelevant, but with Sutphin Boulevard Santion Hassell has gained my trust. I know that he's going to give me something that feels real even in its fictionality (shut up, I'm making up words, okay?), that can give me both pleasure and pain, and can make me laugh and I absolutely will escape into any world he creates. 



A Five Boroughs Story 

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. 

To learn more about Santino you can go to:

Official website:
Twitter: @santinohassell
Facebook: theonlysonnyhassell | santinohassellbooks
Instagram: santinohassell

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