Clay's Way - Blair Mastbaum

Ladymol's Review

The first half of this novel is one of the most accurate and heart-rending depictions of unrequited first love I’ve ever read. Gay or straight, it doesn’t really matter; the passion of that first attachment is all-consuming.

Sam is 15, a would-be punk, rebelling from his middle-class parents. He is hopelessly in love with Clay, a surfer. Clay appears to be conflicted about Sam, wanting him around, encouraging him but rebuffing him at the same time. Told in the first person by Sam, we are given an insight into just how obsessive love can make someone. Sam alters his entire persona to try and make himself someone Clay would want.

Set in Hawaii, the evocation of the nihilistic drug-ridden surfer world is wonderfully done. I felt something very special was coming in this novel.

The second half, however, rather flagged for me. Sam continues to obsess about Clay; Clay continues to lead him on and then rebuff him. There’s a huge conflict on a camping trip, which leads to an explosive ending. By this time, I’d rather lost the plot on the emotions and motivations of both boys, particularly Clay. I guess you could explain away all the contradictions by saying they were so stoned it’s surprising they can walk let alone think, but that’s not an entirely satisfactory explanation.

Sexy, young love at its rawest, wonderfully written. Why didn’t I engage with it more? I guess it’s tricky writing a book about nihilism. It’s hard to convince the reader there’s a point to it all!

Certainly worth reading but doesn’t leave a satisfactory feeling at the end.


Cerisaye's Review

This novel wasn’t at all what I expected.  It’s dark, sombre, lyrical, deep and meaningful.  Even if I’m not entirely sure about what: growing up, pains (and delights) of first love, joy of sex and bodily pleasures…all of these are explored in Mastbaum’s absorbing, beautifully poetic first novel (he’s only 24).

Set in Hawaii among surfer/skater dudes- that’s why I expected something lighter, less introspective, less disturbing, less upsetting.  It tells the story of Sam, 15 year-old gay boy, as he turns 16, and Clay, slightly older, way more cool, masculine, disaffected, a stoned out drug dealer with an image and reputation to uphold.

Sam falls in love with Clay and in his obsessive infatuation is prepared to sacrifice everything and anything to be the boy he thinks Clay will love back.  Oh the folly of youth.

Trouble is Clay is one of those tormented, troubled young men who simply can’t accept he likes boys rather than the girls who swarm round him, particularly Tammy who thinks she’s his girlfriend (oh Sam is very bitchy about her!).

Sam is middle class with overprotective parents.  He writes haikus, doesn’t surf, and hates the sun.  He wants to be cool like Clay, so his lifestyle choices are a parent’s nightmare- hard reading the novel as mother to 3 teens.  Sammy’s parents (he’s an only child) don’t have much time for him- they’re pretty well absent through the novel.  The only sympathetic adult character is Clay’s hippy mother Sally who idolises (and idealises) her son- she’s the Mom Sam wished he had.  Of course Sammy the uncool kid is way more cool about being gay than Clay, who fights his desire every painful step of the way, while being unable to resist the impulse. 

I should’ve guessed when Sam quotes Apocalypse Now:  ‘I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet’ the story was never going to end well.  When he goes off with Clay to a remote beach hideaway everything comes to a head in a terrifying outburst of emotion, love, lust and passion.

It’s an amazing novel, almost too intense.  Sam grabs you on so many levels- he’s hungry for love & affection (distant hands-off parents), and at an age when sex is everything and emotions all over the place in that totally self-absorbed way of teenagers.  His love for Clay is crazy, obsessive.  We know Clay is NEVER going to be boyfriend material; he’s trying too hard to be straight.  Clay’s internalised homophobia inevitably has to hurt Sammy.

Mastbaum has Sammy’s voice perfectly- the boy-man wannabe surfer dude.  I’d have liked a more conclusive ending.  As it is the dark tone of the book makes it hard to imagine a positive outcome, though I think Sam is strong, a survivor despite his tender years, on his way to becoming a man.  His poet’s soul maybe made me over-dramatise the final scene in my head.  I hope so!

I loved the book.  Coming-of-age tales can be clichéd and tired.  This one shocks and surprises.  It’s also delightfully sexy.  Read it.