It’s good when the Wall Street Journal likes your debut novel. It’s even better when the review wonders: “Which will come first: the HBO option or the sequel.”
Potential screen adaptations aren’t worrying Aaron Foley, who’s getting an enthusiastic reception for “Boys Come First,” his fictional look at the friendship among three gay Black men in Detroit.
“I don’t put too much emphasis on that. I’m more happy about the book being out. I’m a writer first,” he says.
Still, when asked about his dream cast, Foley admits that it includes comedian Jerrod Carmichael (HBO’s stand-up special “Rothaniel”) and actor Jelani Alladin (Broadway’s “Frozen” musical), who recently narrated the Audible version of “Boys Come First .”
For a minor role, he has an unexpected suggestion. “I was, like, what local people would be good? For Dominick’s mom, I thought about Carmen Harlan,” he says, referring to the former WDIV-TV news anchor.
If that seems extremely Detroit-centric, well, that is fitting for “Boys Come First.” The book is generously dotted with descriptions and mentions of the landmarks, hot spots, popular culture, challenges, tensions and joys of the Motor City — as seen through a millennial lens.
“We are the generation that was old enough for Coleman Young, but now the mayor is white — and I used to work for him,” says Foley, 37, a writer and journalist who relocated from Detroit to New York City a couple of years ago (and whose summary includes being appointed the chief storyteller for the city of Detroit, a job created by Mayor Mike Duggan).
“Boys Come First” is a funny, poignant, raunchy and frank depiction of everything from searching for meaningful romance to enduring microaggressions at mostly white workplaces. The story kicks off with the sudden return to Detroit by Dominick Gibson, an advertising writer who leaves New York City after being laid off and breaking up with his unfaithful boyfriend.
Dominick finds support from two friends: Troy Clements, a Detroit public school teacher whose issues include clinging to a volatile, increasingly scary relationship, and Remy Patton, the “Mr. Detroit” of billboard fame whose latest real estate venture could have negative personal consequences.
Published in late May, Foley’s book has been praised for its portrayal of gay Black millennials, who are underrepresented as fictional characters — and, especially, as leading men — whether in novels, movies or TV series.
According to Buzzfeed, Foley “allows his characters to be funny, sexy and messy, while intelligently addressing major issues like the gentrification of Detroit. Never didactic and constantly entertaining, this book is both smart AND steamy.”
Publishers Weekly noted that “Foley’s love for his city and his engaging characters shines through, and his novels are funny, naughty, and comforting. This auspicious debut will leave readers eager for more.”
With its brisk pace, conversational style and bursts of humor, “Boys Come First” has something in common with iconic female-themed sagas like HBO’s “Sex and the City” and the Terry McMillan page-turner “Waiting to Exhale.”
It’s a tone that helps make it a standout. The Texarkana Gazette review called it “almost revolutionary in the way that Dominick, Troy and Remy aren’t made to experience the kind of suffering over sexual orientation that once seemed a hallmark of queer literature. Foley gives us characters who are comfortable as gay men and proud to be Black men, but are still flawed, very human, wise and foolish in roughly equal measure. You probably know people like them.”
As for the book’s racy sex scenes, baby boomers might draw comparisons to the novels of Jackie Collins, who explores the boardroom and bedroom world of show business elites in her best sellers.
When the comparison is brought up, Foley says he recently watched a documentary on Collins on Netflix that described how her books put the people and powerful ambitions of Hollywood in context.
“I think that’s what I aspire to do … in terms of peeling back the layers of people around us, listening to how people talk, how people converse, how power dynamics shift between men and other men, Black and white, men and women, all those types of things these authors who do get put in that steamy category,” he says.
“Peel back that and you’ve got fully fleshed explanations of society.”
A Detroit native and alum of Renaissance High School and Michigan State University, Foley has spent much of his career in journalism, working for a number of local publications including the Lansing State Journal, MLive, Ward’s Automotive Group and, as editor in chief, BLAC Detroit magazine.
In 2017, Foley became the inaugural chief storyteller for the city of Detroit, a role that involved chronicling what was happening in the city.
“The goal of it isn’t to just put a positive spin on everything. It’s not going to be like: ‘Oh look at this gorgeous garden over here’ and half the block is empty. … I want to talk about the old lady on the block that we all know growing up in Detroit who has sort of held it down. … It’s really about making sure that people are seen in Detroit,” Foley told the Free Press in 2017.
In 2019, Foley went to California for nearly a year to complete the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. From there, he moved to New York City to be the director of the Center for Community Media’s Black Media Initiative at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.
Currently, Foley works for “PBS NewsHour” as a senior digital editor for its communities initiative, managing five correspondents across the country.
He has done two previous nonfiction books, 2015’s “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass,” a humorous, insightful guide to the city, and 2017’s “The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook,” an anthology of writing from past and present residents of the Motor City that he edited.
He traces the idea for his novel back to 2012, around the time of his 10-year high school reunion. The next year, he began writing and finished three chapters that he put away and didn’t touch again for a while. Several years later, he summarized work on the book in earnest and, around the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, he gave himself a personal deadline to finish it.
According to Foley, one reason he wanted to write “Boys Come First” is because “I (was) just reading the same thing over and over and over again – you know, white guy on a hero’s journey to figure something out. So I was like, ‘OK, fine, let me tell some things from a Black perspective.'”
Foley also wanted to get away from narratives about Black characters in mostly white settings. “I saw a tweet about this, where it was just, like, ‘I don’t want to read any more books about being the only Black person in the workplace or in a situation or anything about that.’ I was thinking the same thing. But if you center it in Detroit, where most of the city is Black, therefore all of the characters, all their families and love interests and things like that are Black as well, then you get away from the larger trend of being the only Black person in the room.”
“Boys Come First” features places that are part of the city’s history, including the Giant Slide on Belle Isle and the Woodward Bar & Grill in Detroit, the oldest bar for the city’s LGBTQ+ community that was destroyed by a fire in June.
It also mentions newer sites like the Shinola Hotel and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, where a Black character at an event surveys the lack of people of color in the space and asks: “What’s happening to Detroit? Did everything just turn into ‘Dawson’s Creek’ while we were gone?”
Foley says he didn’t worry about grounding the story so specifically in Detroit. ”When writers describe other cities, especially New York, they really assume everybody knows, ‘Oh, you take the A train here and then you transfer to Grand Central’ …. and there’s no asterisk or footnote in those kinds of books,” he says. “So why shouldn’t I do the same for a Detroit book?”
Recalling a bookstore appearance by Angela Flournoy, who wrote 2015’s acclaimed Detroit-based novel “The Turner House,” Foley says he was encouraged by hearing her talk about taking “the kitchen sink approach” to using a multitude of observations about people and places in the city.
Says Foley: “I used that same kind of mentality. OK, if I’m going to talk about Detroit, I’m going to talk about as much of Detroit as possible. … There are some things that are exclusive to Detroit that I want people outside of Detroit to know about.”
Foley says it has been a banner year for books and authors with Detroit ties and themes such as Ebony LaDelle’s “Love Radio,” Jessica Nabongo’s “The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World” and Jemele Hill’s upcoming memoir set for October, “Uphill.”
He has also been prominent Broadway shows that speak to Detroit’s gifts to arts and entertainment: playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Tony-nominated drama “Skeleton Crew” and Michael R. Jackson’s Tony-winning musical “A Strange Loop.”
“Whether you leave Detroit to harness some of that creative energy or if you stay within the city, Detroit has never been without creativity. But I think we’re hitting a nexus now,” he says.
For now, however, Foley plans to stay in journalism and leave writing novels for off-hours.
“I’m just as passionate about telling fiction stories as I am about, like, there’s a misinformation crisis. … There’s still a very large gravitational pull for me to remain in journalism as long as the industry can stand me, I guess ,” he says with a laugh.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Boys Come First’
By Aaron Foley
Belt Publishing, 386 pages, $17.95