Read of the Month: “Red Clay Suzie” by Jeffrey Dale Lofton

Named as one of the most anticipated LGBTQIA+ books of 2022 by Lambda Lambda Literary and winner of the Seven Hills Literary Prize for Fiction, Red Clay Suzie (Post Hill Press) was absolutely captivating. Calling it a page-turner does not do it justice, though its short chapters, sometimes only a few pages in length, make for a very accessible read. I was not simply drawn into this coming-of-age novel, I was utterly enthralled. Still, some readers will consume this book—it is hard to put down. But those who have experienced childhood trauma, were bullied, made to feel less than, or were body-shamed, and for those who never quite fit in with the pack or were rejected and persecuted based on their sexuality, and for anyone who for any reason has ever felt like an outcast, well, you may need to take a breath between chapters. I had to. Make no mistake. Red Clay Suzie is a powerful book, but it can be triggering, and you may need to take moment.

Yet another reason to slow down is because it would be near sinful to not savor Lofton’s sublimely written prose. Philbet, Lofton’s young male protagonist, narrates his childhood story, beginning at the age of fourteen-years-old, moving back in time to the age of four, and finally concluding when he is a young man on his eighteenth birthday. The reader is immediately introduced to the central conflict, Philbet’s homosexuality. But the differences between Philbet, his family, and townspeople of Warm Springs, Georgia, tend to pile up. Philbet suffers from a skeletal deformity and he is also tiny and effeminate—all qualities not lost on unsympathetic family members and schoolmates who tease him. Also, his best friend at school, James, is black. Philbet often hides and feels lonely, but when presented with an opportunity for friendship, he doesn’t dare take a chance for fear of being exposed as a sissy and cast amongst the other outsiders:

            There was a boy at church who probably would have welcomed me. Nobody actually called him sissy to his face, but I heard the giggles and whispers behind his back.

And it dawned on me right there in the church that all those whispering kids called me the same names when I wasn’t around. And I expect he, a fellow outcast, thought I kept my distance from him because I didn’t want to be associated with his kind. Or maybe he kept his distance from me because he heard them talk about me—each of us longing for a friend, but too afraid and hoping we were not like the other. But I was his kind, and he mine. The truth was, I didn’t even think he’d want me as a friend. I was worse than a sissy.

At Philbet’s core, he carries a secret—his obsession for his neighbor Knox. His love for a boy is revealed at the very beginning and a sense of disquietude hangs shadowlike over the reader throughout this narrative. In addition to the odds being stacked against Philbet, this is segregated rural Georgia circa 1960s where Philbet’s sexuality is not just taboo, it could get him killed and that ever-present tension follows the reader from the very first page to the end.

Little Jeffrey on a peddle car.

Lofton masterfully memorializes his personal childhood experience and his character’s family life alongside the political and social atmosphere of the South in the 1960s. With chapters titled “Tomato Sandwich Air” and “Good Grits,” Lofton firmly places the reader in the Deep South, a place where grandmothers are called MawMaws and sweet tea can sooth about any hurt. The author draws heavily from his apparently “unsullied” setting incorporating the chaotic tempo of the 1960s. When the local grocer’s son, Beau, enlists to go to Vietnam and Philbet overhears his father saying Beau is going over there to get killed, he naively thinks he just needs to let Beau know: “I didn’t understand why Beau wanted to go all the way over there to Vietnam if somebody was just going to kill him. I figured he didn’t know somebody was going to kill him.” He does not understand why James cannot enter the same door to the doctor’s office as he can. Lofton subtly weaves in big issues from this time period and allows his protagonist to reason them out and make his own decisions against a backdrop that tells him his judgment is wrong. For all Philbet’s perceived views about himself and his small stature. Philbet stands tall as the hero of this story.

Pop culture references, like the candy cigarettes Philbet’s grandaddy brings him, or Brach’s coconut candies, ground the reader in this specific time period and place. The sheer number of candy references will make your mouth water. The candy references create a realistic protagonist who becomes excited about visiting relatives:

There was always a candy dish on the table just inside the living room below the window. My favorite was the pink, white, and brown coconut squares. They were the same color and shape of the Neapolitan ice cream that Mama always bought at the store. It was really just strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate ice cream in stripes for people who couldn’t make up their minds.

Red Clay Suzie is infused with Philbet’s candy logic. His simple reasoning, whether concerning heavy topics like segregation, war, or why Brach’s made Neapolitan candy, endears this character to the reader.

The author’s evocative imagery transcends time, taking the reader back to his or her own childhood memories. Our sense of smell is said to be our oldest sense. Whenever I smell apples, I always think about my Papa who grafted twelve varieties of apples onto one apple tree in his back yard. Lofton’s description of the Bookmobile had that same effect on me.

And boy, did I love the bookmobile. It smelled of syrup in there among the shelves, the kind of syrup that we used on birthday mornings and came in a bottle shaped like a lady. And it smelled like a Christmas tree, my chin involuntarily lifting to catch a breath of cedar that hung in the air alongside the syrup at a point just above my head.

The smell of the Bookmobile floated right off the page. I was instantly transported to the thrill of hearing the pneumatic sound of the Bookmobile’s door opening and the distinctive odor all those books had that seemed to enclose me in a warm hug.

Philbet is such a sensitive soul; you cannot help but adore him. He loves Matchbox Cars—his favorite car is a 1968 Mercury Cougar in green. And his favorite color is green. All children have a favorite color, but Philbet takes it to a new level. It means eating lime sherbet and always drinking from his grandmother’s green aluminum cup. Recall those midcentury rainbow metal cups that practically gave you frostbite if you held them too long? Again, I reminisce with Lofton. It is easy to do. Readers should pay attention to how Lofton incorporates color imagery, and specifically, green. Green is symbolic of rebirth and renewal—something his character undergoes after his first intimate experience:

It was a step-by-step seduction, almost a paint by numbers project. After I filled in color number one, the kissing, I could fathom going on to color number two, the words and feelings. And I guess color number three would be some boys-only version of what Judy and her new husband shared. Now that Knox had come to me, and we had finally kissed, colors two and three joined color number one on this canvas all of a sudden, together, like the scene painted itself.

Philbet interprets his romantic experience as an act of art, beyond words, where the participants add their colors together and merge onto a canvas as one. It’s intoxicating imagery. Pay attention to another working symbol of the author’s cars. Whether it is a toy car or a real car, Philbet is infatuated. Ashamed of his body and living in constant fear of exposure, he lives in a fantasy world of sleek-looking cars. The perfectly crafted bodies of cars serve as an extended metaphor, a flawless replacement for how Philbet views himself and his bodily “defect.”

Though there are dark moments in Red Clay Suzie, Lofton does a nice job of balancing them with good moments, transporting the reader to childhood days spent playing without a care in the world:

I was invisible, fearless running full out without thought or worry of the clothesline post or abandoned rakes in the grass. The slight chill of the dark along with the breeze that came from running back and forth the length of the backyard fence washed me with air so cool that it bathed my insides with strawberry Kool-Aid. The feeling was a triumph over the heat of the day. I felt night-kissed, and I told Mama so. “I don’t need a bath, Mama! I love you, Mama! I love you, Mama! I caught you a lightnin’ bug, Mama!” Those nights were the reason mayonnaise jars existed. And lightning bugs battled to live in my jar. Those nights were the memories against which I’d measure the rest of my life, the lessons that taught me how happiness and love felt.

A profound love for family is a dominant theme in Red Clay Suzie. Philbet relies heavily on his mama and his grandaddy as role models. The novel could be seen both as a love letter from the adult narrator to his boyhood self, but also as a tribute to the grandaddy figure. It’s reminiscent of the short story, I Remember Grandpa, by Truman Capote, who wrote the book as a gift to his aunt but also as a tribute to an elderly male cousin who encouraged Capote to view him as “grandpa.” Both grandfather characters teach the young male characters the secret of living life. It may seem sentimental, but the secret to life is to love one another and to be loved.

Furthermore, there’s an element of allegory in Red Clay Suzie; the short chapters sometimes act as fables, in particular “Grandpa’s Tater Rule.” But ultimately it is through those life lessons Philbet’s grandaddy instills in him that the boy who struggled to love himself overcomes his self-loathing and Lofton ends his story in a very hopeful and uplifting way.

 While Red Clay Suzie is a work of fiction, the story was inspired by Lofton’s own childhood and  resembles a memoir. I was reminded of another southern author’s memoir, A Childhood: A Biography of a Place, by Harry Crews. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir also comes to mind. I compare Red Clay Suzie to these two memoirs, because they are exemplary cases of adult authors who wrote from the perspective of a child, as well as chronicling time and place. Lofton, like Crews and McCourt, writes with unflinching honesty, expertly portraying the child’s voice. Surely, Philbet lived in Lofton’s imagination for a very long time and will remain in the minds of Red Clay Suzie’s readers as well.

JD Lofton

Jeffrey Lofton hails from Warm Springs, Georgia, best known as the home of Roosevelt’s Little White House.  He calls the nation’s capital home now and has for over three decades.  During those early years he spent many a night trodding the boards of the DC’s theaters and performing arts centers, including the Kennedy Center, Signature Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, and Studio Theatre.  He even scored a few television screen appearances, including a residuals-rich Super Bowl halftime commercial, which his accountant quipped “is the finest work of your career.”

Ultimately he stepped away from acting for other, more traditional work, including providing communications counsel to landscape architects and helping war veterans tell their stories to add richness and nuance to historical accounts.  At the same time, he focused on pursuing post-graduate work, ultimately being awarded Master’s degrees in both Public Administration and Library and Information Science.  Today, he is a senior advisor at the Library of Congress, surrounded by books and people who love books—in short, paradise.

Red Clay Suzie is his first work of fiction, written through his personal lens growing up an outsider in a conservative family and community in the Deep South.


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