The Protégé

Sean Thor Conroe lost his fiercest advocate before he published his first novel. Now he’s facing the hype without him.

Photo: Marie Tomanova
Photo: Marie Tomanova

Sean Thor Conroe is outlining what he calls the “four pillars” of fuckboy-hood — the different ways you can be a self-aggrandizing, duplicitous, and otherwise distasteful man. First, there’s what he calls the classic spineless, “bitch-ass dude,” whom other men look down on because they’re not living up to the “masculine standard of toughness and integrity.” There’s the “untrustworthy male in the romantic context.” There’s the “hypebeast fuckboy” decked out in Balenciaga. And finally, there’s the guy who uses sex with more powerful men for protection.

I ask Conroe — the author of Fuccboi, a novel about a fuckboy who shares his name and some of his biography — whether he identifies as a fuckboy. He looks incredulous. “No, hell no,” he says.

It’s Black Friday, and we’re sitting over plates of potatoes and smoked salmon in one of those outdoor-dining boxes with plastic windows in Brighton Beach, so close to the ocean our conversation keeps getting interrupted by gulls. The 30-year-old eventually concedes that if you had done a 23andMe test on him at the time he was writing the book, he would have been something like one-16th fuckboy. It’s that part of him — the old him — that the book is about. “Ah, I shouldn’t be saying this,” he says, and that’s probably correct, but what else can you expect from a first-time novelist doing an initial round of press barely six months after a modest deal with an independent publisher turned into a six-figure contract with Little, Brown? Conroe, wearing a Patagonia vest and a Carhartt hat in muted tones, waves his hand over my recorder, as if to swat away what he just said.

Out January 25, Fuccboi was among the last projects championed by Giancarlo DiTrapano, the founder of the beloved small press Tyrant Books. The book’s themes are autofictional, the cadence staccato. It’s also just experimental enough that it’s hard to imagine its getting a wide release if DiTrapano hadn’t been involved. Now it stands as a kind of monument to his influence: DiTrapano died suddenly in March 2021 as he and Conroe were making the final touches. They had just landed on a cover illustration of the author with his eyes rolled back in his head — “like the fuckboy demon taking over,” says Conroe.

For over a decade, Tyrant had carved out a rare countercultural space in the increasingly sterile world of New York publishing, favoring internet-native writers and harrowing, explicit stories about vice. DiTrapano “made writing cool again,” says Nico Walker, another DiTrapano protégé and the author of the autobiographical novel Cherry. The editor and publisher — who would sometimes act as a kind of middleman, connecting writers with larger presses than his own — often went to bat for books in which authors wrote painfully intimate portraits of the worst parts of themselves. Cherry is about a man cracking up after a tour of Iraq; The Sarah Book, by Scott McClanahan, is about a man cracking up after a divorce. Fuccboi is the story of a man cracking up because he’s a man — an “examination of masculinity under late capitalism,” according to the promotional materials. Conroe tells me The Sarah Book was what made him decide to “investigate this whole thing,” to write an unfiltered novel about a fuckboy “trying to toxic-masc his way through it.” (“Like, okay, yes — dudes have been shitty for all time; but so, what, now the move was to … out-shitty them?” he writes.
“I don’t know, bro.”) He calls Fuccboi a “self-help book.”

The protagonist, Sean, will be familiar to anyone who has been to an off-campus party at a liberal-arts college in the past decade: a swaggering, Adderall-fueled presence who turns out to have paper-thin skin. As the novel opens, Sean is in his late 20s and living in Philadelphia, doing bike delivery for Postmates. He has failed to turn any of his recent life experiences — trimming weed in California, walking across the country, being obsessed with Roberto Bolaño — into a piece of art. His self-inflicted wounds make up the bulk of the book: the internalized gender politics that might be “sus af” as Sean obsesses over the woman he refers to only as “ex-bae” and wonders whether “roomie bae” is trying to seduce him by taking a shower in her own home; the insistence that the literary world is full of phonies coupled with a works-cited list that includes Guy Debord, Eileen Myles, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sheila Heti, of whom Conroe is a huge fan. (Heti, whose real emails to the real Conroe appear in the book, says she was initially upset that he had included their correspondence without asking her. But since reading his “poetic and propulsive” writing, she has decided she doesn’t mind. She gave the book a blurb.)

The closest thing to a redemption narrative comes when Sean suffers an awful skin condition and returns home to be nursed back to health by his mother and sisters. The nearest thing to a mission statement is the admission, early in the novel, that a female editor (called only “editor bae,” naturally) asked Sean to cut the “rape-y parts” of a novel he shared with her: “every savage, ugly, testosterone-fueled, shameful thing it had been the most difficult to write.” Conroe won’t say whether this happened in real life, abruptly citing the unreliability of memory and the instability of the self; he still doesn’t get why people keep asking about that part of the book. Fuccboi itself was the product of a very different kind of editorial guidance. Conroe describes DiTrapano’s editing style as “like, ‘This chapter is kind of weak. Make it better, bro.’ ”

Conroe was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father. Both worked as caretakers, and Conroe recalls spending time as a child at the publicly funded disability and rehabilitation communities in Europe where his parents found gigs. “People had different jobs according to their ability,” he says of those communities. “So you might be in the damn weavery or the candle-making workshop.” The work took the family from Japan to Sacramento to Scotland to upstate New York. Conroe attended middle school in Santa Cruz and, starting in fifth grade, when his parents split up, lived in a “house full of women,” including his two sisters and mother. (He says his mom liked the book but had to keep in mind that the Sean Thor Conroe he was writing about wasn’t literally the Sean she had raised.) His father mostly absent, Conroe got deeply into playing basketball, modeling himself on players like Allen Iverson and rappers he admired. He was recruited by Swarthmore but quit the college team as a sophomore (he jokes that it was because he started “smoking cigs and reading and self-mythologizing”); he studied writing with a minor in philosophy.

In 2014, a disagreement with the college about a missed credit and the terms of his need-based scholarship made Conroe so furious he decided to walk across the country, beginning a period of transience. He says he spent the next 100 days walking — that he went back to Santa Cruz but felt so unsettled he didn’t really want to live in a house, so he slept in a sleeping bag on his bed. Eventually, he moved to Philadelphia, where he started publishing short stories in online magazines, before relocating to New York to pursue an M.F.A. at Columbia. A cousin who had recently departed the city gave Conroe his set-building jobs in Greenpoint and Red Hook, and Conroe moved into a Harlem apartment without a kitchen, eating egg sandwiches and chopped cheese from a bodega for most meals.

That’s when he met DiTrapano. Right before his first M.F.A. workshop in 2019, Conroe sent the editor a cold email that included what would become his thesis: an early version of Fuccboi. DiTrapano surprised him by responding less than a day later asking to see a finished book. Walker says the manuscript energized the editor. “Gian sent me two books in his life,” he says. “One was Fuccboi. He was really hyped about it.” (The other was Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.)

DiTrapano took an interest in Conroe. When the writer and I trundle outside to smoke a cigarette on the near-empty boardwalk, Conroe says the view reminds him of where he stayed with DiTrapano over New Year’s 2021: at a house in Italy overlooking the ocean. By March, Fuccboi was essentially finished. DiTrapano was planning to put out the book on a new imprint. But then he died. Suddenly, Conroe says, he didn’t really care about Fuccboi anymore: “Shit got kind of real kind of quick, you know?”

Soon, though, one of the agents DiTrapano had contacted on Conroe’s behalf reached out to see if he wanted to continue the process, and Conroe agreed. He says he was “really manic” when the agent sent the novel out to publishers; he stayed up all night and finished the sixth and final book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. (“I was saving the last 100 pages.”) The next day, the offer came in from Little, Brown; less than 24 hours later, he accepted. He wouldn’t say how much his advance was, but the publisher confirmed it was a six-figure deal. Conroe took off shortly after, driving his Chevy van to Los Angeles. “I was going through some shit,” he says. “I was just trying to change my life.”

A couple of months later, a fiction writer and artist named Sam Pink published a blog post claiming Conroe had intentionally stolen his prose style, using it to gain entry into a prestigious writing program and then to secure a hefty advance for his book. As evidence, Pink provided a series of emails in which he said Conroe alternately thanked him for deeply influencing his work and apologized for what might feel like an adoption of his voice — attempts to secure an endorsement Pink says he rejected. “I can’t stress enough how conniving he is with his thinking and planning,” Pink wrote. “The man really is a weasel mastermind, in the art of snatching the crumb.” He accused Conroe’s publisher of “riding Gian’s ghost.” Conroe, who thanks Pink for “lighting the way” in Fuccboi’s acknowledgments, later tells me that Pink is a “cited influence” and that he had considered him a friend. (When I reached out to Pink to discuss these claims, he told me only to get a real job. Then he posted a screenshot of our email thread to his Instagram and Twitter.)

Walking under the elevated subway down Brighton Beach Avenue, looking for a place to grab a beer, Conroe asks whether I think it’s crazy for him to publish this book, whether he’s dropping a “reckless bomb.” He tells me the way DiTrapano was “kind of, like, hyping, gassing the book up” has created a “weird energy” with the release. Now he has to navigate the aftermath without him. When I asked Walker about the effect DiTrapano had on his own career, he took a beat. “I could really use Gian now,” he said. He was sitting on hundreds of pages of writing he didn’t quite know what to do with. For Conroe, the loss likewise represents the absence of a confident advocate. Looking out at the beach, getting quiet, he tells me the book was really the product of DiTrapano’s faith in him. At some point, he had stopped caring what his M.F.A. workshops said about it: “Gian fucks with this. I don’t care what you guys say.”

Conroe seems shaken by everything that has happened since the beginning of last year — the loss of DiTrapano, the book deal, the attention, the criticism. These days, he’s all about being in his body, he says, taking pains to distance himself from the fictional Sean. “A lot of that book is from a place of, like, Nothing matters. I’m fucked up,” he says. “And, you know, I was fucked up.” He doesn’t want to be that guy. He recently moved to Brooklyn, where it’s quieter. He’s playing a lot of basketball. He’s taking cold showers. “I’m on my body-fascism shit,” he says. He pauses, reconsiders. “That was a joke.”

Sean Thor Conroe, Protégé