Sometimes I feel that the city is vanishing from fiction. The books I’ve been reading and reviewing lately have taken place in nowhere towns along highways; or they have taken place in transit, zigzagging from one locale to another, the author never settling in anywhere; or they have focused on interior landscapes, the ‘where’ of the characters’ lives less important than the ‘why.’
For this reason, I read Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky with pleasure. The novel begins as a coming-of-age story, but from there it broadens out, poking around in the dark corners of a city in transition. Midway through my reading, I made a note that the book kept getting bigger as it moved forward, instead of narrowing its focus. I thought this was a flaw. But no—this turns out to be the book’s design.
Kicking the Sky (released in the U.S. by Algonquin Books, but originally published last fall in Canada) begins in Toronto, in August of 1977. In the opening pages, Antonio, a 12-year-old growing up in a Portuguese-Canadian neighborhood, is setting off with his friends, Manny and Ricky, to find a missing boy named Jacques Emmanuel (a real person), whose disappearance has caused panic throughout the city (“It was the summer that no one slept”). The three friends’ family lives are in varying states of decay, and they hunger to define themselves as heroes. But when Emmanuel is found brutally raped and murdered in the seediest part of Toronto, the boys’ parents begin to define them, sometimes as potential victims, sometimes as troublemakers (in Antonio’s case, his father bizarrely defines him as a mystic).
From here, the novel sprawls like the city itself when the boys meet James, a strange 21-year-old who has moved into the neighborhood, and takes a special interest in the narrator and his friends. It is through James—and also through Antonio’s “aunt” Edite, a newspaper reporter writing about Emmanuel’s murder—that the boys discover areas of Toronto they never knew existed: the downtown red-light districts, the phony revivalist churches, the protests against homosexuals (ignorant and outraged citizens conflate ‘homosexuality’ with ‘pedophilia’)—in short, the boys discover a city trying to figure out its own identity in the face of tragedy.
Meanwhile, Antonio tries to figure out the people around him—no easy task, since everyone in this novel keeps secrets. “Aunt” Edite spends long, mysterious nights away from home. Antonio’s father appears hardworking and honest, but when he decides that his son is a mystic, he sets up a church and accepts money, revealing his own hypocrisy. Antonio’s mother keeps sneaking off with a neighborhood man (snippets of conversation Antonio hears between his mother and Edite hint at great unhappiness in the marriage).
Then, there are Manny and Ricky, Antonio’s friends, who start performing various clandestine tasks for James: some seem domestic—Ricky tidies up and makes coffee—while others seem criminal in nature. James is a bigger mystery—especially in light of the Emmanuel murder: Why has he moved to Toronto? What does he want with 12-year-old boys? And why does Antonio feel attracted to James when, previously, he wanted only to spy dutifully on the girl next door? In this sense, Kicking the Sky’s biggest mystery is Antonio himself.
De Sa’s prose is polished to the point of being reflective, and readers will see the uncertainties of their own childhoods in each lustrous sentence—not only in the presentation of shaky adolescent sexuality, but also in its portrait of friendship. In the beginning of Kicking the Sky, De Sa delivers a scene of the boys bonding: “We squatted there, not saying anything. There was something about becoming blood brothers that made me feel stronger—a superhero transformation.” This is the center of the novel—the “blood brothers” facing down the monstrous secrets of adulthood, recalling Louise Erdrich’s The Round House.)
Many of Kicking the Sky’s most surreal moments strike hardest. The discovery of Emmanuel’s body is juxtaposed with the ceremonial murder of a pig, and De Sa uses the animal’s death as a stand-in for the boy’s: “There wasn’t much left of the pig by now, just the hind legs dangling from the wooden rafters.” Another bizarre moment shows the narrator discovering his mother shampooing her hair in the kitchen sink as his father has sex with her, “rocking on the balls of his feet, bumping up against my mother’s behind,” while she continues to wash.
While these moments—and others like them—are haunting, Kicking the Sky falters a bit in its plotting, the final pages relying too much on melodrama. Although these climactic chapters emerge from an honest place (i.e., characters we’ve come to understand), they feel restricting: Characters who were formerly complicated become grotesques functioning only to hustle the story to its resolution, which cuts ties with some of the novel’s more interesting elements.
Yet De Sa’s overall architecture—the sweep of his narrative—is impressive. Kicking the Sky begins by sketching out the experiences of one young man, but the final impression it leaves is of having detailed a turbulent year in a Canadian city, whose streets and high-rises and neighborhoods pulse with dark life.