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Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada
My virtue is that I say what I think, my vice that what I think doesn't amount to much.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Kicking The Sky

Anthony De Sa's novel Kicking the Sky is about Toronto's loss of innocence and the coming of age of Antonio Rebelo. It is told in the voice of Antonio, an eleven year old growing up in the Little Portugal area of downtown Toronto in 1977. The story unfolds against the backdrop of the real murder of a twelve year old shoeshine boy named Emanuel Jaques on the seedy Yonge Street Strip. As a child welfare worker in that part of Toronto at the time I remember the incident well and the shockwaves it sent through the community. When Antonio and his friends heard the boy was missing they decided to form their own search party but Emanuel was found dead on the roof of the Charlie's Angels body rub parlour, murdered by homosexual pedophiles. A tsunami of homophobia swept over the Portuguese community and pressure was applied on the police to clear Yonge Street of the strip clubs, lewd book stores, massage parlours and the street hustlers who plied their trade there.

Antonio and his friends are left to their own devices because their parents work long hours at multiple menial jobs and cannot supervise them. A young man, James, moves into a garage on the back lane where Antonio, Ricky and Manny hang out. He befriends the trio and the boys use the garage as a sort of clubhouse. James convinces Antonio to smuggle food from his mother's kitchen and bring it to him. Manny steals bicycles for James. Ricky, a sweet boy whose only parent is a drunken, abusive lout, is pimped out to a neighbour by James. But James can also be kind to the boys and takes in a young girl who was impregnated by her stepfather. Is he a good person or a sexual predator?  Antonio finds himself both attracted to and repelled by James and is confused by these feelings. Events careen out of control and culminate in a rat's nest of an ending.

There is another story thread. Antonio sees a Jesus-like image on a shell when he is eating seafood. Shortly afterwards a shopkeeper claims that her arthritis was cured after touching Antonio's hand. His father sees an opportunity to take advantage of the situation and sets his son up with a red cape and the limpet shell in the family garage where he acts as a faith healer to the gullible. Antonio's father exploits him but eventually realizes it is wrong and ends the sideshow.

This look at the Toronto of 1977 is pitch perfect. It was a time when kids were still free to roam the city named "Toronto the Good". The Emanuel Jaques murder changed all that. When the book ends the boys have faced some harsh realities and are no longer happy-go-lucky kids riding through the laneways on their banana seat bicycles and the Jaques trial is wrapping up. Antonio joins the men to dig up a neighbour's fig tree. It is spring.
This is a dark novel that is very hard to get through but it captures a city, a community and an era. I am thoroughly glad to have read it.

A bit of a bonus: This book trailer uses footage from that time to illustrate the mood that emerged in the aftermath of the murder.

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