Title ~ Sunset Park (Five Boroughs)
Author ~ Santino Hassell
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 11th December 2015
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
Raymond Rodriguez's days of shoving responsibility to the wayside are over. His older brother wants to live with his boyfriend so Raymond has to get his act together and find a place of his own. But when out-and-proud David Butler offers to be his roommate, Raymond agrees for reasons other than needing a place to crash.
David is Raymond’s opposite in almost every way—he’s Connecticut prim and proper while Raymond is a sarcastic longshoreman from Queens—but their friendship is solid. Their closeness surprises everyone as does their not-so-playful flirtation since Raymond has always kept his bicurious side a secret.
Once they’re under the same roof, flirting turns physical, and soon their easy camaraderie is in danger of being lost to frustrating sexual tension and the stark cultural differences that set them apart. Now Raymond not only has to commit to his new independence—he has to commit to his feelings for David or risk losing him for good.
Santino Hassell does not fool around. No hairless Nordic gods for heroes, no billionaire gay guys living the high life, no middle-class, proper gay lovers yearning for white picket fences and 2.5 kids. Mr. Hassell writes real people living in real places, dealing with the gritty realities of life, including their own limitations and failings.
It’s hard to write a story that gritty and still put out a gay romance, but somehow, Mr. Hassell manages to pull that particular rabbit out of his hat - and with some aplomb. It helps that he tends to place his stories in the outer boroughs of New York (no movie stars and hot celebs on those streets), and his characters are so real, so detailed, that you often don’t even like them very much. But still, you stick with them, because the premise has great possibilities, and so do the two hot young men whose story you’re reading. You sit on the edge of your seat waiting for the heros to either self-destruct, or make it through the fun house ride to the light at the end of the tunnel.
To be honest, I couldn’t imagine how he’d get there in his newest novel, “Sunset Park”. But he does, and it’s well worth the torturous journey. There’s a wonderful kind of integrity to his writing. His characters are never romance-standard, their angst is from an entirely different dimension, and it’s so rewarding when these dark characters, these losers-trying-to-win, get there despite themselves.
Mr. Hassell also writes some incredibly complex characters, including rough guys with soft hearts, depressed failures still riding on hope, and men too fearful to bet their hearts on anything or anyone. The main character in “Sunset Park” is one of those depressed failures. Even among his family and friends, Raymond is a loser, a slacker primarily interested in smoking dope every day and pounding video games when he’s not totally wasted – and even when he is. He screws around with women, because he is, at least, ridiculously sexy, in that macho way that only Hispanic men can pull off. But he’s not into the women. They are sex buddies to him, girls into his big equipment and athletic performance, rather than into relationships and love. Oh, they do love Raymond in their own way, until they find a man who offers the promise of hearth, home and forever. Then she (and he) move on to other, greener pastures without regrets.
Raymond has no ambition. He had a well-paying job at the docks, a job he actually liked, but since he rarely showed up, and when he did, he was usually stoned out of his mind, that job evaporated into a phone that stopped ringing to call him in for a shift. If you can imagine a gorgeous, hung, macho Hispanic slacker with an attitude, you’ll understand Raymond.
Surprisingly, he is surrounded by family and friends who are not slackers, who are not just productive, but valuable members of their community. His big brother, Michael, is openly gay. But Michael got himself an education and works as a teacher for a not-for-profit school for homeless and at-risk LGBT kids. Ray’s best friend is David, another openly gay man who is also Michael’s boss. Ray and David have the strangest relationship. Raymond continues to sleep with multiple women, but cuddles at home with his devoted friend, David. I can’t even imagine it, but here’s Raymond, an Hispanic straight stud, cuddling with a whitebread twink who adores him. Ray’s passionate with his women, but remarkably tender with his young blond buddy. It may be that David is the only one who can really “see” him, the only one who sees a beautiful man where others see a hunk, the only one who loves Raymond’s soul, where others just admire his impressive sexual equipment.
“Sunset Park” is about a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where Raymond suddenly has to relocate when Michael decides they need to rent out the house they inherited from their recently deceased mother, and Raymond needs a kick in the ass to get his butt into gear and get a life. With little time to find new digs, and rents being ridiculously expensive, even in the outer boroughs, Raymond and David decide to share an apartment – as roommates.
It’s a beautiful apartment, but the relationship is not quite so airy and comfortable. These two guys need to be together, but they each have their own set of preconceptions that keep them from dealing with each other honestly, of articulating their needs and desires to each other, of finding common ground they can both take ownership of.
David is convinced that Raymond is really straight, and though he’s affectionate enough, he can’t possibly actually desire him physically. He’s just “experimenting”, and when he’s done “experimenting, he’ll drop David like a hot potato. Oddly enough, the physical part is not a big barrier to Raymond. After all, he’s watched his big brother screw around with men for, well… almost forever. And it doesn’t bother him. In fact, he often found it arousing. He’s at least bisexual, but Ray doesn’t give a damn about labels. Too bad David can “see” Raymond, but not how much Raymond wants him, and how deeply he’s falling in love with him. In his frustration, Raymond almost lets himself be convinced that all David really wants is his “little bit of rough”, the “safe” danger of being near a hot Hispanic man without the risk of actually committing his heart.
Ray goes to extraordinary efforts to silently convince David that he cares deeply about him and wants them to take things further. Of course, if the two men were just honest with each other, trusted each other with their deepest secrets, fears and desires, they wouldn’t have spent most of this book fighting over motives, fear of rejection, and ascribing all kinds of obstacles to forces they believe to be beyond their control.
It’s not beyond their control, and in an exquisite redemption, the author, like a god in the wings, ends the dancing around and begins the dance – bringing the two men together, men who were meant to be together, men who bring to the table exactly what the other lacks, men with so much passion and love for each other that it burns up the page.
Excellent job by Mr. Hassell, drawing these two seemingly-incompatible characters together with the inevitability of any great love story. It’s a stormy ride, an intense experience, but also a delight to behold. It takes a long time to get there, but watching two hot men circle each other is never a bad thing. Mr. Hassell’s writing is, at the same time, both poetic and fierce. He never compromises his characters, he never sugar-coats them, he shows them, warts and all, as they fight and fall in love. You may not like Raymond much at first. You may lose your patience with the terrified David. But you will never be bored. And seeing all that power focused like a laser on the diminishing space between the two young men is surprisingly tender and moving.
If you’re at all interested in a well-written, hot, gritty, and realistic romance that grabs you and doesn’t let you go, you need to read “Sunset Park”. Santino Hassell has done himself proud.