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A coming-of-age story and tale of first love set in early 1970s Cincinnati, Shawn Stewart Ruff’s beautiful, LLA-winning debut novel Finlater (Quote Editions) is narrated by 13-year-old African-American Cliffy Douglas. Living in the Findlater Gardens housing project with his mother and two brothers, the novel opens with the return of his long absent father, Clifford Sr.
Cliffy’s difficulties as his family attempts to reconfigure their lives around this unexpected arrival — and the uncomfortable eroticism of Senior’s penchant for lounging on the couch wearing only a pair of tight bikini briefs — are only slightly alleviated at school. The atmosphere there is tense along both racial and socio-economic lines, and Cliff’s very public mistake at the city-wide spelling bee, despite his near-obsession with spelling, has made him a laughing stock among his classmates.
However, he slowly develops a friendship with a Jewish classmate Noah Baumgarten. Outsiders drawn to each other at first by the coincidence of wearing identical striped shirts one day, the two encounter prejudice for simply walking down the street together, and are forced by a teacher to act out a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in an attempt to humiliate them.
But the friendship of these ‘soul brothers’ grows and becomes physical.
We looked at each other, grinning, and for the first time I worried that I was going to hell. This definitely wasn’t something I should be doing. But I’d have to worry about my soul later. For now, all bets were on Noah my soul brother….’God that feels so good, don’t it.’
They make plans to run away together, but it soon turns out that Noah has some domestic secrets of his own, and Cliffy has to learn difficult but important lessons about friendship and love.
A quiet revolution has occurred in fiction for and about young adults in recent years. Keeping up with changes in the larger culture, young adult authors are writing grittier works, with a greater attention to social detail, using stronger, more realistic language that might be shocking to adults who have not been paying close enough attention to the lyrics of recent pop, hip-hop and rap songs.
Since the breakthrough of Alex Sanchez and his “Rainbow” trilogy (Rainbow Boys, Rainbow High, Rainbow Road), there have been more openly gay and lesbian young characters appearing as well. Writers for adult audiences such as Brian Malloy (The Year of Ice, 2003), Alphonso Morgan (Sons, 2005), and Bil Wright (Sunday You Learn How to Box, 2000) have also used teen and pre-teen protagonists as a way to view the world through sharp, naïve yet sensitive, eyes.
Finlater deserves high marks as part of this later trend. Attempts to recreate the voices of young African Americans wrestling with their sexuality remain sadly rare. Author Shawn Stewart Ruff, editor of Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of Lesbian and Gay Fiction by African American Writers (Henry Holt & Co), has done it here with apparent ease.
Only occasionally does he let a word or phrase slip by that takes the reader outside young Cliffy’s world view. His portraits of Cliffy and Noah’s relationship and their imperfect families ring true. In particular the scenes with Cliffy and his brothers, the totally devoted young Corey and the older, proto-tough guy, Dudley; their mother, Lacey, who the boys suspect is starting to neglect them in order to keep their still rambling father around; and their “Bikini Dad” Clifford Sr., walk a perfectly pitched line between touching and disturbing.
Attention must also be given to Finlater’s design. A heavy trade paperback with thick pages and French flaps, it is the first title from Ruff’s new publishing company, Quote Editions. Impressive both inside and out, Finlater is a sensitive and moving debut.
by Shawn Stewart Ruff
ISBN: 9781604023954, Paperback, 292p