Shawn Stewart Ruff laughs when I congratulate him on Finlater, his first novel. More like my fifth, he says. A voracious reader and prolific writer, Ruff wrote the preliminary draft of the book in about six weeks. It was a big, sloppy mess, he admits. It had to be rewritten 10 or 15 times.
The result is the finely tuned story of Cliffy, a 13-year-old African-American boy from the housing projects who discovers his burgeoning homosexuality with Noah, a middle-class Jewish classmate from the right side of the inner-city tracks. Cast against the backdrop of tumultuous 1970s Cincinnati, Ruffs portrayal of the ravages of first love is rooted in history and place. The eras race and class dynamics -- which Ruff experienced growing up in a project adjacent to the Findlater Gardens of the title -- are mirrored in the two boys families: Cliffys father is consistently absent and extraordinarily violent; Noahs is plagued by mental illness and a shocking sexual secret of his own. When Cliffy meets Noah in junior high school, their connection is immediate. I wanted to explore under what circumstances at that time a child could discover sex, Ruff says. It had to be with someone so different from Cliffy, pulling him out of his world into a whole other vista.
Despite the pervasive heartbreak of the novel, Finlater is ultimately a love story, if an unsentimental one. Hard love is mostly the kind of love Ive known, says Ruff. And Im not interested in a happily ever after story.