Publicists are an interesting breed of people. There’s an unspoken edict that they must "love" everything they promote, so it was no surprise when Anthony De Sa’s book Kicking the Sky came accompanied by a note proclaiming the PR flack’s adoration of the author’s new novel. Having read De Sa’s beautifully written, captivating story, I can only admire said publicist’s restraint in not gushing further.
"Edith smelled of unwashed clothes and tobacco. ‘When do you need to be at school?’ She plugged in the percolator, then loosed the belt of her robe and tied it again, cinching it at her waist. Her breasts jiggled under her robe. I could trace the outline of her nipples. The word high beams comes to mind — that’s what Manny would have called them. I looked away."
It’s this sort of captured moment that makes De Sa’s writing so real, yet so lyrical. His narrator, a sensitive 12-year-old named Antonio, somehow manages to maintain an authentically adolescent voice while still evoking a memory entertained from an adult perspective. In this, Kicking the Sky feels very much like a memoir, but with all the immediacy of the events as they unfolded.
Sadly, the events surrounding young Antonio and his friends are anything but fictional. Kicking the Sky details the horrifying murder of Emanuel Jaques, a Portuguese-Canadian shoeshine boy who was sexually tortured before being killed and disposed of by pedophiles Saul David Betesh, Robert Wayne Kribs and Joseph Woods. This causes great disruption in Antonio’s world, as the Portuguese community within which he lives reacts in rage and fear; no longer can the boys meander through their Palmerston Avenue alleyways alone, their worried parents keeping close track of any movements.
The loss of innocence goes hand in hand with the boy’s own life changes. All the confusion and excitement of puberty gets mixed up in the sexual nature of Jaques’s demise, along with the appearance of a mysterious young man named James. Blond, fit and magnetic, James has moved into a neighbouring garage and quickly establishes himself as a sort of Fagan for his young admirers.
"He grabbed my thigh under the table. I couldn’t stop the boner that was beginning to press against my pants."
As Antonio wrestles with his attraction to James, he also begins to view his family and neighbours with newly adult eyes. The hypocrisy of the pious and outwardly "normal" families begins to gnaw at his awareness, while his own friends fall victim to James’s dangerous influence.
Throughout the novel, there is a special sense of Toronto as it must have been in the late 1970s. De Sa’s great gift is conjuring up this period with an affectionate nostalgia that manages to steer clear of bucolic sensibilities or manufactured sentiment. His end-of-innocence feels all the more poignant, given the contrast with the urban life of today’s child. Imagine kids riding downtown on their bikes, alone. Imagine a close-knit community working toward a Canadian ideal of success. Imagine Toronto the Good. Then imagine it all going horribly, horribly wrong. That is the beautiful, terrifying magic of Kicking the Sky.
Watch Xtra's video interview with author Anthony De Sa.