The cover image for Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky perfectly encapsulates the novel’s themes, structure, setting and tone.*
A child’s bicycle leans against a garage door, the only sign of habitation. The view of the alleyway leaves the safety of home beyond the edges of the scene.
The shadows are as predominant as the shapes of the buildings. The darkness above the bicycle seems larger than the frame.
The rooftops angle, inviting the eye into the centre of the image, where the wires above intersect. But the bulk of the image is devoted to the sky overhead, which is echoed in the muted blues and grey.
Antonio is twelve years old; he is still riding a child’s bike but he is venturing into the alleyways.
He is discovering that he can know things about the world that his parents do not know.
He is learning to unearth what his parents strive to keep him from knowing.
“My mother didn’t know half the things that went on in our world. She didn’t know about what Ricky did at the pool hall or that Manny stole bikes. Or that I sometimes stood watch when Manny and Ricky robbed the houses of families on holiday in Portugal.”
All of this is equal parts thrilling and frightening, for Antonio is unprepared to deal with some of what lurks at the margins of his experience.
Bringing this vulnerability into sharp focus is the disappearance of Emanuel Jacques, an event which profoundly impacted the residents of Toronto and, particularly, the Portuguese community.
On July 28, 1977 Emanuel went with his brother and a friend to Yonge Street with a homemade shoeshine-kit, where the boys were offered $35 to help move some camera equipment. While the other two boys went to use a telephone to call their parents to ask for permission to do so, Emanuel was taken to an apartment nearby, where he was confined, raped, and eventually murdered.
Antonio assembles a fractured understanding of these events from overheard conversations, glimpses of newspapers, and the warnings of family and community members.
“I have a couple of police friends that are slipping me some juicy bits. It’s hard to get this information. Everyone in our newsroom is just too polite so they asked me to use my American know how to dazzle a few answers out of them.”
Antonio has no knowledge of the “juicy bits”, but those are just the bits he craves to know. Edite is a reporter who is interested in the parts of the story that are not being covered in the media, and as a reporter she is committed to exposing the truth, even though she recognizes the value of a well-told lie.
She, too, lives in the neighbourhood, which is described in vibrant prose, rich in sensory detail.
“The smell of mothballs, cooking oils that had seeped into the fabric of their clothes, glycerine soap, and baby powder caked by sweat became dizzying.”
And not simply the city of Toronto, although it has a solid presence on the novel’s pages (Euclid, Markham and Palmerston streets; City Hall; Old City Hall; Princes Gate at the Ex; Yonge Street; Eatons Centre; Regent Park; park at the foot of Bathurst; Food Building at the Ex; bank at the corner of Queen and Bathurst; Kensington Market; Future Bakery; Czehoski’s on Queen; College Park shopping centre; CN Tower; Massey Hall; Maple Leaf Gardens; building of the Leslie Street spit; St Mary’s Church; Alexandra Park on Bathurst; Toronto General Hospital; St. Mike’s Hospital; Vanauley Walk).
But the world of Little Portugal, including the spectrum within that community, between the mainland Portuguese and the “dirty Azoreans” (including the novels’ main characters).
“The branches of the fig tree had grown heavy with fruit since then. My uncle had smuggled the seedling into the country from his yard back home on the island. It had been carefully packed in his luggage with a wheel of Portuguese cheese, chouiço, and some live crabs.”
The kind of detail in the story is tactile, everyday and yet remarkable. The language is simple, the imagery uncomplicated.
“The lock clicked into place, a sound I had first heard the night Emanuel Jacques went missing, I pressed my forehead against the window screen, into the bulge that had formed over the years. I could feel my hair sticking up, electrically charged. It had rained all day. It was a hot rain, the kind that falls when the sun is out. Clinging to the night air was the smell of wet concrete.”
And, yet, the author layers these simple details with precision and care.
This boy’s forehead, leaning against the screen: it echoes the idea of significant childhood events leaving a subtle mark behind on the landscape, and in turn, the image is echoed elsewhere in the story.
Antonio’s mother leaves a kiss on his forehead and lightly blows on it; she leans her own forehead against the window of the bus at night; Mr Serjeant’s cap leaves a red band on his forehead when he removes it after working; Senhora Gloria’s starched white band leaves a mark on her forehead; and, there is the indentation in the screen, which brackets the story, appearing at its beginning and its end.
Other echoes add to the power of the narrative; there are three bodies of three victims (identifying them would be spoiling, of course, but readers will remember them) and there are three severe beatings in the story as well. The power of threes: this has a significance in the story as well.
Kicking the Sky is a sad story; there are many injuries recounted, many tragic and all damaging. But the act of storytelling is a source of power, even for the powerless in this tale.
What is not said is sometimes as important as what is spoken, sometimes the most significant portions of truth must remain protected:
“Sometimes, the things we want most in the world we guard previously. Saying the words may make it disappear.”
And sometimes breaking the silence is a source of power as well:
“There was so much that I did not want to say because not saying it made things easier. I know that’s not right now.”
The need to be silent competes with the need to speak out. Such a paradox also exists in the idea of the sky, which represents both freedom and risk.
Running across the rooftops, Antonio most loves the leaps across the gaps between the buildings, the sense of flight with a landing in sight. The contrast adds significance to both extremes.
But growing up is like running across the rooftops without a place to land at the end. It is fear and belief in one. “Fear is a terrible thing,” one character says. “Believing feels good,”says another.
“The moment you’re afraid, you close your eyes,” he said. “That’s when the earth opens and swallows you up.”
The earth can be security and comfort, it can swallow you whole. There is nothing simple about growing up, about uncovering the truths that adults have shielded you from knowing, about making sense of contradictions.
Anthony De Sa has a particular way of telling this story. Readers wonder whether he doesn’t have a bit of Edite in him.
“She’s interested in what makes people tick,” James said. “Edite’s brave, you know. She’s more interested in how Emanuel’s murder has affected the gay community, how they’ve all been made out to look like animals. It’s the kind of story most reporters are afraid to tell.”
Kicking the Sky is the kind of story some authors are afraid to tell too.
“It was hard to explain…it seemed like the person I was now was not the person I would’ve been if Emanuel Jaques had not been murdered, if James hadn’t dropped into our world out of nowhere. I’d never have the chance to be that boy again.”
Like The Little Prince, the source of the novel’s epigraphs, Antonio grapples with the wider world; the boy is changed, the community is changed, and while some possibilities emerge, others are eclipsed.
Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky is well-crafted and poignantly told: the slaughter of innocence, squealing and bloody, with what-might-have-been left to drain into a pail.
*Cover illustration, Todd Stewart, Jacket Design, C.S. Richardson
Diane Schoemperlen’s Our Lady of the Lost and Found (for the mystical elements)
Andrew Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue (for the vivid depiction of community)
Steven Hayward’s The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke (for coming-of-age in TO)