Portuguese Canadians

by

“Coming of age novel”: the term makes me want to gag.  It’s been that overused–probably ever since Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with the highest arc being J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  I like both novels but not the slew of later works trying to get so much mileage from these earlier writers.  Yet the term has become such common parlance that we all know what it means.  And, yes, it certainly applies to Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky.  De Sa is Canadian, of Portuguese extraction, and I have to confess that I did not know anything of Toronto’s Portuguese community until I read his engaging and often riveting story.  It’s reminiscent of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravatz, about the Jewish community in Montreal in the 1940s, but bleaker.  De Sa’s story takes place three decades later, during the 1970s, and is based on an historical incident in 1977, when the body of twelve-year-old Emanuel Jacques (that’s his real name) was discovered on a rooftop in the Portuguese community, several days after the boy had disappeared. What the main character, Anthony Rebelo (yes, he’s a rebel) wrestles with is his overbearing parents—particularly his mother.  Once the boy’s body is discovered, she and the other parents in the neighborhood become overly-protective.  That’s natural, of course, but exacerbated by the fact that almost all the adults in the area, on or near Yonge Street, work during the day.  Both men and women, so they can’t oversee their children as carefully as they would like.  After Jacques’ murder, these parents suddenly put the brakes on their children’s activities.  Good reason: the boy’s body was sexually abused.   But pre-adolescent kickingskyand early adolescent boys, particularly, who are used to climbing over the rooftops, bicycling down sleazy streets and generally running wherever they want, don’t like what has happened, even if they now have a more immediate fear than they had before. Into this cauldron of risky activity are the known men who drive through the community when the adults are away, poking their heads out of their cars, and offering the young boys hard cash (often large amounts) for sexual activity.  We see this several times in De Sa’s novel.  It’s way before gay pride and most of the men are closeted, probably married, but constantly, it appears, in search of forbidden sexual activity.  Moreover, Anthony is physically attracted to a twenty-year-old man who has recently rented a garage in the area; and it is pretty certain that that guy, James, supports himself by male prostitution.  But the men in the cars want younger boys and that’s where the parents’ legitimate fear resides.  You could say that the Portuguese community is being attacked from outside by sexually repressed men, and the horribly mutilated body of Emanuel Jacques, when it is discovered, brings the issue into the daylight.  Everybody knows that this sexual exploitation has been going on for years but suddenly it can no longer be ignored. Antonio has a sister and a brother, who are older than he is, and an aunt who lives near-by, but although they can be helpful and understanding at times, they also have their own problems.  His aunt has escaped into her own fantasy world, repressing the fact that her American husband has been killed in the war in Vietnam.  Worse, he was black, which didn’t sit well with Antonio’s parents; but the young narrator can talk to her more honestly than any other adult—other the mysterious James.  And James, in order to mask his homosexuality, has invited a fifteen-year-old pregnant girl to move in with him.  Antonio also lusted after her, before she became pregnant, and becomes totally confused by her decision to live with James. The center of the novel pivots on a rather bizarre incident involving limpets Antonio’s family feast on one evening.  The young boy believes that he sees an image of Jesus in a limpet shell, after he had eaten one of the mollusks.  Pretty soon, his father and others see the image also and, more strangely, an old woman who suffers from crippling arthritis in her hands believes that she has been cured of her affliction after she touches Antonio.  The boy’s father quits his job as a manual laborer, sets up a shrine in their home—complete with a dais where he has his son sit—as worshippers flock into the room by the hundreds once the miracle of the woman’s arthritis becomes common knowledge.  All visitors are encouraged to leave money in a collection plate as they leave the room.  Soon the family has escaped their life-long situation of living close to poverty.  Even the Portuguese priest for the community tries to get into the act.  He threatens to shut down their racket unless they pay him fifty percent of the loot. I found it rather difficult to put down De Sa’s Kicking the Sky.  It’s not a great novel, but it’s certainly compelling reading, and the novel’s ethical center carefully addresses issues of reality and morality is a serious manner. This is De Sa’s second novel.  Hopefully, there will be a third.

Anthony De Sa: Kicking the Sky Algonquin, 316 pp., $14.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.                

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