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Review: Finlater by Shawn Stewart Ruff

Book explores carnal realms many publishers fear

LOVE IS ALWAYS ENDANGERED. Shawn Stewart Ruff's brave debut.

It’s the spring of ’69 in Cincinnati. In the bathroom of a cramped house in a barren housing project, a black kid of 13 is soaking in the tub, hearing the screen door slam as a mystery guest is greeted by his mom. Moments before, Cliffy stood naked at the bathroom window watching a dark, nattilydressed man pull into the parking lot in a low-slung T-Bird. “He turned up our sidewalk…. Our eyes locked in the tug of gravity — the little body me, the big body him, in a pull like the moon toward the earth or the earth toward the sun, or me toward fried chicken legs, my favourite thing in the world.”

Two pages in and I was hooked on this writing. Cosmic homoerotic magnetism and fried chicken legs? It’s a giggle — but so much more. We feel the swirling, unformed passions of a child teetering on the threshold of sexual awareness. A page later, the silk-shirted dude is standing over the toilet and Cliffy is mesmerized. “His thick gold-ringed fingers unpacked his privates from tight black polyester pants. He maneuvered it until a red head came out.” The guy turns out to be Cliffy’s dad, absent for a decade. He pisses a golden stream, repacks his tool, then hoists Cliffy up for a kiss on the cheek: “Give your old man some sugar.”

Dad decides to stick around for a while. He even gets a job, still managing to pull all-nighter debauches, stumbling into the kitchen next morning while Lacey (mom) is dispensing Sugar Crisp to her brood of three boys. At home dad is found mostly on the couch in his tight bikini briefs, watching TV and ordering beers and snacks from his grudgingly obedient sons.

Lambda-shortlisted editor Shawn Stewart Ruff has given us a gem with this first novel, woven through with insights about oppression and prejudice, hurt and healing. Cliffy’s first-person voice is surprisingly seductive. He’s a convincing kid in every way while doubling as a near-flawless vehicle for his author’s wisdom about pubescent boys and their surging sexuality. One scene, in which Cliffy is affectionately manhandled by his father on the couch, is intensely erotic. You see that both Clifford and Cliffy, dad and son, are briefly immersed in a sexual game that’s over almost before it begins — too soon even for them to acknowledge it. But we sense that dad is playing with fire.

A few pages later Cliffy is riding double on the banana seat of his new friend’s bicycle, his arms tightly around Noah’s waist. The thrill of their erotic tug feels just right: “The wind flapped his shirt up. Sweaty hair vanished into Fruit of the Loom underwear elastic above the studs on his stained Big Hank jeans. Oil, mud, arm stink and Captain Crunch cereal swirled around me in tornados of smells.” I instantly recalled that same cereal breath and boyish sweat wafting from my pals at summer camp.

Cliffy and Noah later share an outdoor jerk session. It’s the beginning of a love affair that pulls us deep inside their hormone-charged dance of discovery and desire. The sex is as tender and green as spring growth in an asparagus patch. Noah is Jewish and part of the friendship is a growing, reciprocal awareness of the shared tragedy in their ancestral histories. Harassed in the street by kids recycling their parents’ intolerance, they are all the more determined not to let prejudice pull them apart. In a touching emotional climax one morning Noah bursts into tears as he meets Cliffy for some renewed outdoor dick-play. Noah’s dad has just had a messy mental breakdown and been taken to hospital. “Noah cried. His face puckered and turned bright red. He made dog-like whining sounds. I put my arm around him and then I began to cry, and get a hard-on at the same time.” Some teens shout at them from a passing car: “Look at the Jew-Nigger lovebirds.”

Ruff bowled me over with this scene (and many others.) What gets me here is the incongruous hard-on. It’s funny, but it also proves beyond a doubt Cliffy’s unshakable bond with Noah. Body and heart — his whole being — hum with need and tenderness. Then the heartless abuse from outside reminds us that love is always endangered. Does that sound a tad overwrought? Well, the novel is the complete opposite. This book rings with authenticity, exploring carnal realms that too many publishers simply won’t go near. Bravo to Shawn Stewart Ruff and to Quote Editions for bringing his gift to us.