So Long to the City: Reading the Five Boroughs as a Closeted New Yorker
EDIT 03/11/18: I am now aware that the author writing as Santino Hassell was accused of catfishing and abuse. I withdrew my support from Hassell's Patreon but am keeping up this little essay not as a recommendation of his work but as a reminder to myself of the books that got me through a difficult transition in my life, and also maybe as a reminder to everyone not to tarnish the greatness of our own work with low morals. To remove the essay feels futilely revisionist.
I am not one of Hassell's victims, and my heart goes out to them. I never communicated with Hassell except for once in October, when I won a charity auction and paid for him to critique my romance manuscript. I’m now so grateful that money went to charity and not to him, although I wish I could get all of my Patreon money back, considering that I spent an uninsured therapy session talking entirely about Hassell.
It’s incredible how much his falsehoods have affected me, someone who wasn’t at all involved with him on any personal level. I really can't imagine what it's like for people directly involved. I was just a reader and an aspiring writer who wanted to mirror his career choices, from his agent to his publishing companies to his PR tactics.
I’ve been a part of book communities online since I was a kid, and I’ve never seen anything like this happen. I didn’t start reading m/m regularly until June 2017. Prior to that I had guest reviewed on lesbrary.com and mostly read fanfiction, lesbian fiction, and literary gay fiction. Hassell was like my gateway drug to m/m. I made this blog in September 2017 because I was convinced I had fallen upon a utopian genre for queer folks, and I wanted to pen an essay that began to describe how much the 5B series meant to me.
I recently reread the post below and ultimately decided not to take it down, as a reminder to myself of how murky life is. Rereading it made me realize one of the many reasons this betrayal of public trust cuts me so deeply: “As so many real life stories of sexual violation are being exposed to the public, it is therapeutic and even subversive to invest your time and interest in a story about three people figuring out how to love each other, mostly through open conversations.”
Someone I thought was a main player in crafting a subculture that stood in direct defiance to abusers and predators was actually both of those things. Of course I’m wounded.
Moreover, I realized what an uncanny level of influence he has had over me: He’s the reason I’m on Twitter, the reason I receive ARCs through A Novel Take PR, the reason I review for RT Book Reviews, the reason I first picked up Avon Gale, Roan Parrish, and Piper Vaughn’s work. The reason I buy directly from Dreamspinner and Riptide. The reason the reason the reason.
He’s the reason I’m still working on the manuscript I was working on last October, although I need to let that project rest right now. His critique redirected my story entirely, in ways I think are positive. Ironically, he told me the characters seemed too manipulative. He said he wasn’t okay with people who brush off their wrongdoings and act like “everything is gravy.” It felt like a strong lesson about crafting moral and loving characters—the kind I love the most. He taught me that. And he is a terrible person.
When I first started blogging, I occasionally tweeted that I didn’t want authors to follow me. That was ignored; it seemed impossible not to ignore. They’d retweet my reviews of their work and ‘like’ my tweets and once, when I rated a book poorly, an author unfollowed me. It felt personal in a way it’s never been with other book communities. I never consented to it, but it feels like there’s no other way to be within the queer genre romance community. There’s no space where readers are left alone. And that’s how it feels: All these accusations of doxxing, and there’s no real place for readers where writers aren't snooping.
Not all book communities have authors who cyberbully their readers, and everyone knows I'm not just talking about Hassell. This is not the way all book communities are, and it's a great disappointment to me.
THE FIVE BOROUGHS
spoilers below, mostly for book 1
Sometimes you find books when you most need them. I found my favorite series about New York, appropriately named The Five Boroughs, eight weeks before I left the city. As time ticked down to my flight departure, the thought of visiting my favorite bars, parks, and bookstores for the last time left me maudlin and anxious. Reading about the city I was imminently going to leave allowed me to distance myself from it slowly. I wouldn’t say books are medicinal, but Santino Hassell’s cured my homesickness before it even rooted itself.
The Five Boroughs is both an entertaining romance series and a masterpiece in the world of queer literature. While it’s marketed as genre m/m and fits into that category, it also explores the landscape of human sexuality with a revelatory honesty akin to the literary fiction produced by gay powerhouses like Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst. Hassell’s prose is direct and simple, but his grasp of human psychology leaves me with the scooped-out-soul feeling I’ve only otherwise gotten in a therapist’s office.
When the narrator of First and First, book 5, looks out the window of a high rise, right after dodging out of a failed potential threesome, he observes the traffic below and thinks:
Sometimes it helped for me to think in terms of the hundreds of thousands of people living in the five boroughs who felt like me. Anchored to nothing, too afraid to take a chance. Lost and not quite fitting anywhere – even the places we wanted to be. I felt less alone when I considered all of those other aimless souls. Maybe one day we’d find each other.
Living as a mostly-closeted queer kid in New York (even when I was attending NYU, possibly the queerest school in America, I was closeted) often left me with thoughts exactly like this. I picked up the first Five Boroughs book just weeks after I had accepted a job offer in Japan. Taking the job was partly a fulfillment of certain childhood dreams, but also a more complicated acknowledgement that my favorite city is too expensive for me and my twenty years’ worth of student loans. I was a queer kid in a queer school in a queer city, yet somehow I had failed to live my best life as a new adult, and now time was running out. My one-way ticket to the other side of the world was scheduled for my birthday.
Santino Hassell’s The Five Boroughs tells a story very different from – and very similar to – my life. Its magic lies not only in that the aimless souls find one another. Every romance book offers this. Instead it strikes a chord by depicting a world unflinchingly like my own, but where the queers are less lonely. It’s hyper-realistic until it’s not, and that makes the fantasy believable.
This is not the New York City of every Hollywood rom-com, or of Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York, where no one ever sleeps, and Times Square shines so bright, and the Bronx/Queens/Staten Island/all the places that make white people uncomfortable might as well not exist.
The fiction market is oversaturated with books about New York, but so few contain any trace of the real city. What makes New York good can't be confined in a cliche. What makes New York good is that there's a lot of it, a lot of different people meshing their art and mental illness and money and garbage and dreams together, voila.
One of my favorite gay Brooklyn writers once wrote I contain multitudes. (That's right, I'm calling on my man Whitman). Hassell’s books shine light on our multitudes. He somehow transcends whatever race and class limitations he has to write about Puerto Ricans in South Jamaica; the Irish American working-class boys of the Rockaways; middle-class transplants thriving in gentrified Brooklyn; and the stupidly rich wiling away their time in TriBeCa.
The series gets stronger as it continues. The first hint of its true strength is in book one, when Hassell subverts the expected cliches of m/m fiction. The protagonist, Michael, is an alcoholic with an alcoholic father. He’s never come out to his father, and one would expect that the resolution to the story would be him coming out, making amends with his father, and living “an honest life.”
He doesn’t. His father abruptly passes away, and Michael spirals, his addiction worsening. Again – one would expect the resolution to be the romantic lead sweeping in to save Michael from his emotional problems. This doesn’t happen. Michael spends a significant page count in rehab, his soulmate off-screen.
The first book didn’t blow me away, but it left me curious for more. Hassell begins to hint more strongly that this is not a usual series by taking on Michael’s younger brother as the protagonist of book two. Raymond is the asshole secondary character I didn’t want to read more about, but he embarks on a convincing self-transformation that turns him from freeloader to a hardworking New Yorker. Notably, Raymond takes up both office work and dock work to handle his Brooklyn expenses, an exhausting hodgepodge of part-time labor similar to what I myself was juggling when I read the book.
Hassell’s character cast is diverse in race, class, and city location, but also in the ways they relate to queerness. Raymond’s boyfriend David has progressive liberal parents who are happy to have a gay son in a kind of baby, I was born this way way.
When Raymond, a newly self-proclaimed bisexual, tells David, “[I wasn’t] born with the bisexual gene. There’s nothing wrong with me choosing to try something out. That don’t make it less valid,” David doesn’t know what to say. David thinks that his parents “had embraced [him] because they said [he’d] always been this way. … Would that be different if they saw it as a choice?”
David doesn’t know, and he never finds out. That’s not the main plot of the novel, it’s just one of the many candid conversations the cast of the Five Boroughs has about queerness. I don’t want to put down other books, but oftentimes m/m is written by straight women, and whether the books are good or not, I feel an overarching pedantic theme in the literature that I think results from a kind of performative alliance. These books contain lessons for queers like come out to everyone and you’ll be free.
Hassell isn’t pedantic; he’s inclusive. These books are a love letter to love. As the series progresses (yes, there are more than five), the characters’ relationships become more interwoven, with recurring characters making Easter egg appearances. They’re standalones that wholly reward the loyal reader, as the development of established relationships are hinted at through the eyes of new narrators.
In the first book, David is described as a “little helpless baby gay who needs guidance.” Hassell’s recent release, Third Rail, takes place about four years after the first book. A new narrator, Chris Mendez, is trying to figure out his sexuality so “late in the game” that he feels “like a big fraud.” In other words, he’s a helpless baby gay who needs guidance, and the person he turns to is David, who Chris describes as, “definitely my go-to queer dude for gay sexing advice.” Each book centers around a different couple, but everyone’s arcs continually progress throughout the series.
Additionally, the reader befriends the character cast at the same time the characters are befriending each other. I doubt Hassell predicted this series would have as many books as it does, and it feels like Hassell developed the same fondness for his characters over time, creating an organic celebration of friendship all around.
Third Rails is categorized as an erotic novella. It features the beginning of the first serious polyamorous relationship in this series, but due to its short length, I wasn’t expecting much more than three dicks on a bed. Instead I got an intensely focused exploration of human psychology: Three equally vulnerable people navigate a new landscape of intimacy together, partly helped by the advice of their friends.
As so many real life stories of sexual violation are being exposed to the public, it is therapeutic and even subversive to invest your time and interest in a story about three people figuring out how to love each other, mostly through open conversations. I read this series during my last four weeks in New York, finishing book five on the plane to Tokyo. They were a celebration of everything I love about New York, and everything I wish the city could have been to me.