Shawn Stewart Ruff’s much anticipated second novel, Toss and Whirl and Pass, opens with a compact comedy of ill manners in a Manhattan co-op building, just after 9/11. It could not be a greater leap from the Cincinnati housing projects and tweenaged boy sex of his first outing. That heart-grabbing debut, Finlater, won a 2008 Lambda Award. If I could, I’d nominate this novel for the same honour.
The audaciously named Yale Battle (bereaved African-American homo) lives with Zsa Zsa Gabor (a cancerous cat) in a loft apartment hemmed in by residents with big sloppy dogs. Outings can be a furry gauntlet. One morning Yale heads downstairs to Nigel and Penelope’s place in hopes of nabbing some neighbourly cat care. Who should he see exiting their apartment but a lithe blond skateboarder — and Penelope sporting a caught-with-her-panties-down look. She pulls Yale inside and the tart one-liners and absurd evasions begin, as P’s crazed Siamese embeds her talons in Yale’s leg.
In a few pages we’re fully and delightfully immersed in the voices and spaces of a very particular corner of New York’s urban universe. The quirky neighbour gambit is Ruff’s feather-light framework for the deeper, darker stuff he slips between the lines: Yale is still grieving, years after his partner Courtney’s death. New York, mere weeks after the Twin Towers horror, is still in shock, digesting the impossible. There is no choice but to read on.
Ruff has a no-bullshit take on black and queer realities. Personal and political entwine in sardonic riffs. Battling HIV, Yale sometimes thinks of himself as rotting fruit: “a mouldy and infested watermelon.” “My fruit emblem is an insult, a stand-in for the shiftless, do-nothing darky…. Our plate-sized, vermillion lips are always gnawing the red, tasty meat down to the rind. Why else would we have nigger lips?” The bitterness under the wry social critique is his response to a life inside two abused minority groups. Ruff refuses to gloss over the self-hatred that sneaks in under the rage.
Yale’s past includes a father who beat up his son as therapy for his own failings. College offered an escape. Yale’s literature degree leads to a published short story and ongoing attempts at a novel. Ruff’s story arc droops somewhat with the aspiring-writer plot detours (including a three-page discussion of grant applications), but the narrative spotlight stays mostly on the main event: Yale’s budding love and lust for professional dancer Courtney.
The up-and-coming hoofer initiates Yale into the joys of being cornholed. “He threw his head back and pried deeper, pushing back the layers of my ache so pleasure saw a way through.”
Courtney needs some convincing to commit, while Yale has no doubt that he’s in the irreversible throes of First Love. This is no deterrent to the usual extracurricular pleasures. The midpoint of the book offers a late-night sex encounter in Central Park that echoes the darkest, dirtiest riffs from New York’s iconic gay writers of the 1970s and ’80s. Yale’s gruff and commanding top man is shaded a much deeper black — a large part of the turn-on for cinnamon-tinted Yale. Only fiction can examine the seething intersection of lust and race with unfettered honesty, and in that regard, Ruff is fearless. After some terse negotiation, Yale finds himself pinioned against a boulder, the larger man buried deep inside him. “He is my saviour…. I whisper to teeth and the whites of eyes. How black he is. How slave black he is. The black that was beat and broken in the dirt and the hate of the bought and sold and hanged.”
The passage floored me. I didn’t know whether to share in the pleasure with Yale or weep for the brutal beauty of Ruff’s expression — the brilliant leap from joyfully conjoined bodies to their shared legacy of horrible abuse. Ruff rounds it off with the arrival of four white cops, bristling with contempt as they arrest the pair.
Yale’s crash course in the justice system is scarily convincing. Framed by Ruff as a much grimmer comedy of manners, it features a cramped and fetid holding cell, a weary, seen-it-all legal-aid lawyer, and eight days in a Rikers cell with an elderly Cuban who cries out for his mama in his sleep. Ruff’s details make even his minor characters sharply present.
As Courtney gets sick, the echoes of the ’80s come on strong. His slow demise, one more grisly tour through the pre-cocktail years, might have been rough going, but Ruff keeps the shots of corporeal meltdown brief. He knows his audience; a reminder of those days is enough.
Courtney dies off camera — again, the best choice for readers who know the drill all too well. Yale’s grief comes to us in a prose poem, printed on dove-grey pages, the design element surprisingly enhancing the chapter’s emotive force. Then Yale’s haphazard journey toward recovery begins. The book closes with a recalled moment of sheer joy, the pain wrapped inside it like a dark jewel.