Review: 'Red Clay Suzie'

Christopher Verleger READ TIME: 2 MIN.

Philbet, the impressionable narrator of Jeffrey Dale Lofton's touching debut novel, "Red Clay Suzie," rightfully deserves a place in the literary canon with the voices and words of such renowned protagonists as Holden Caulfield, Scout, and Huck Finn.

As a child growing up in rural Georgia circa 1960, Philbet is an outlier, relentlessly and repeatedly bullied. His chest cavity is deformed, his best friend is black, and he has an affinity for the same sex. Like most youngsters, Philbet has trouble understanding why he doesn't fit in.

Despite Philbet's seemingly interminable isolation and loneliness, his grandfather is a shining light of unconditional love. He also takes comfort in his matchbox car collection and enthusiasm for automobiles. As a teen, Philbet meets Knox, who helps him develop skills as a mechanic, but also makes him aware that his feelings are more than just friendship.

"Red Clay Suzie" can fairly be described as a coming-of-age novel, yet the author acknowledges it is semi-autobiographical, therefore it reads much more like a memoir, where each chapter resembles a diary entry recounting a significant or meaningful event or experience. The intricate, vivid detail featured in Lofton's descriptions of the settings and characters is nothing short of breathtaking, such that the reader gets to know the people, places, and things in Philbet's life almost as intimately as he does.

The intentionally plotless story is an illustrative journey of self-discovery, while the novel also serves as a compelling, revealing portrait of the conservative south, racism, and segregation. Philbet reluctantly keeps his friend, James, hidden from his family and home, until such events transpire that he has no choice. Yet even with the evident poverty and inequality, the author paints a magnificent picture of nature and the intrinsic beauty of the region.

Knox is the scale model, arguably too-good-to-be true dreamboat, and the author cryptically mentions his name early on, so it's no surprise that he is the catalyst for Philbet's sensual and sexual awakening. Their apparent chemistry and endearing interplay have a positive, transformative effect on Philbet, regardless of where it may or may not lead.

"Red Clay Suzie" starts out a bit slow, but the result is an extraordinarily moving, captivating account of a determined young man who learns how to love and accept himself.

"Red Clay Suzie" is available now from Post Hill Press.

by Christopher Verleger

Chris is a voracious reader and unapologetic theater geek from Narragansett, Rhode Island.

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