This is the first book of Santino Hassell’s Five Boroughs series. I thoroughly enjoyed Hassell’s unrelated novel, Stygian, so I wanted to check out his other offerings. And thank goodness I did.
Throughout their youth through college and into their careers as teachers, Michael and Nunzio have been joined at the hip. Nunzio–gay and disowned–has been out to anyone who cared to listen since they were younger; Michael, on the other hand has made it a point to keep his family and the people from his old neighborhood in the dark. This is a childhood friends to lovers story, but with a completely different, more grounded feel than your usual fare. Their journey from friends that people assumed were getting it on, but weren’t to them planning dates post-orgasm was plagued with one low after another and a some questionable highs.
An impromptu threesome featuring Michael, Nunzio, and a presumed one-night stand set off sparks that, failing proper extinguishing, crackled, caught, and spread into a full blown conflagration burning just about everything within reach. Not wanting to abandon the house their mother worked so hard to get, Michael reluctantly settles back in with his younger brother, Raymond, after their mother’s passing. Soon after, their aunt shows up ushering in their estranged father who wants to move back in supposedly to convalesce as he suffers from cirrhosis. Still healing from the passing of their mother, the uninvited guest puts further stress on brothers, and after Raymand confronts their uninvited who turns out to be unresponsive, things spiral completely out of control and Michael is forced to face things he feels are better left ignored until they fix themselves. Such as dealing with unaddressed feelings about his abusive father, seeming unable to motivate his 25-year old brother to do more than smoke weed and play video games, failing at finding a balance in or redefining his relationship with Nunzio, and fending off the bureaucracy at his job.
Raymond, who was never pushed to do more than exist, finds it hard to cope, but his already crumbling foundation is further torn asunder when he has to face possibly losing Michael, too as the fortified shell that his brother has long-employed to protect and obscure his festering guilt and neurotic disposition reaches its limit and crumbles as well. Meanwhile, Nunzio’s heart is breaking and the one-night stand just won’t go away. The way back, or forward, as it were, is a long road paved with unceasing guilt, denial, brutal truths, emergency rooms, benders, and some relatively hard-won forgiveness.
Michael and Raymond’s relationship played out really well. Michael was overprotective and you could see how used to it Raymond was, but also how well he understood it and the affect it had on their relationship. It carries over into the second book in the series, Sunset Park, which features Raymond and an all too familiar teacher. But with Nunzio, it was the other way around, he was quite protective of Michael, but, for 20 years, managed to keep his expressed concerns in the realm of very close friendship. But when the lines started to blur, as cool as he tried to play it, you could see his wanting. There was one scene when Michael is pulling back because things are getting too complicated for him and in Nunzio’s response, you can hear the anguish in his voice and how close to tears he is.
Truthfully, all of the relationships are interesting and feel natural given the personalities of the individuals comprising them. All of the characters’ concern, pettiness, uselessness, nosiness, charm, bravado, selfishness, playfulness, and more crashed and blended together to establish and foster this living breathing story pulsing with the kind of emotions and circumstances that, at once, drain and invigorate you. All the ways that these characters care for each other and seek each other out one minute and hurt each other and distance themselves from each other the next and then cling to each other the next just pulls you through the story, effortlessly.
I only have one issue with the story, but it isn’t apparent until the next book, so I’ll hold off on getting into that.
This was a very good read and I am looking forward to the rest of the series.