The first told the story of Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman, and his arrival as an immigrant in Newfoundland. The second set followed Manuel and his family to Toronto, changed the narrative perspective to his young son Antonio and ended up portraying ethnic life in inner-city Toronto (which happens to be one of the city’s distinctive charms). Both worked for me: Barnacle Love was like two novellas that captured very different aspects of the immigrant experience.
In a sense, De Sa returns to that same world with this debut novel — Antonio is again the central character and the key dramatic incident in this book was the subject of one of the stories in Barnacle Love. That event, based in real life, was the abduction and murder in 1977 of Emanuel Jaques, a shoeshine boy lured to his death by a group of pedophiles with the promise of easy money. The crime became one of those symbols that captures a moment in the development of a city — in this case, the fact that Toronto’s “main street”, Yonge, had descended into the squalor and vice that seems to be part of becoming a metropolis.
Like Antonio’s family, Emanuel was from the Azores and the Portuguese neighborhood where Antonio lives is both preoccupied and outraged by the crime:
It was the summer that no one slept. During the last sticky week in July, the air abandoned us, failing to stir and stream through our streets and between our crooked alleys. The grass in our lanes stood tall and still, barely rooted to an urban soil of gravel and discarded candy wrappers. The narrow brick row houses that lined Palmerston Avenue and Markham Street — painted electric blue or yellow or lime green — became buffers to the city noise. A persistent hum was all we heard.
I can pinpoint the very moment it all started to change, when the calm broke: when news that twelve-year-old Emanuel Jaques had disappeared spread through our neighborhood in the whispered prayers of women returning from Mass. They gathered along their fences and on their verandas speaking in hushed tones that went silent whenever children drew near. We ignored their anxious looks and their occasional shouts to get home and lock the doors.
Eleven-year-old Antonio and his friends, Manny and Ricky, hang out in the back alleys and garages of Toronto’s Little Portugal and they make a pact to go in search of Emanuel’s killer — a pact that goes nowhere when the shoeshine boy’s body is found four days after his disappearance. But just as the crime became a symbol for the larger city, it develops as an even bigger symbol for this young threesome and their lives.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
The early part of Kicking The Sky features many of the elements (indeed, repeating incidents) from Barnacle Love that attracted me to that collection. De Sa’s portrayal of the ethnic neighborhood is both realistic and evocative. Its isolation from the city around it is offset by a collection of preserved customs: Antonio’s front yard features a crèche where a carefully-painted statue of Christ is ensconced behind plexiglass in an old bathtub stood on end, the men and women of the neighborhood annually butcher a pig in one of the back lane garages (a coming-of-age event for Antonio when he is allowed to participate).
In this novel, however, De Sa soon moves to a much darker side. The threesome of youngsters is one example: Antonio’s family is dysfunctional, Manny steals and sells bikes to get along, Ricky (whose drunken father beats him regularly) earns his money by masturbating adult men who stick their penises through a hole in the wall at the local pool hall.
The story acquires an even more foreboding turn with the arrival of James, a stranger who takes up residence in one of the area garages and befriends the young threesome, turning the garage into a clubhouse. De Sa presages bad news around James — while the author takes some time before revealing he is a rent boy (which creates some disturbing elements given Emanuel’s death), when he does it hardly comes as a surprise.
In another development that tested my patience, Antonio finds an image of Christ in a limpet shell — and the owner of the local corner store decides that the boy has acquired divine powers and has “cured” her of a chronic affliction. Antonio’s father, whose basement excavating business is struggling, turns him into a Lourdes-like attraction. Crowds line up outside the family garage (where Manuel has constructed a stage for the boy) to spend a few seconds in front of him so he can perform healing miracles and they can leave their thanks in a handy tin.
By the halfway point of the novel, De Sa has abandoned his sympathetic portrayal of the neighborhood and its inhabitants and focuses instead on laying on one unlikely dark development after another. I’ve spoiled enough with a couple of examples — rest assured, there are many more.
The end result, for this reader at least, was a very disappointing book. There were enough reminders early on of De Sa’s ability to capture a neighborhood and develop ethnic characters that it brought back fond memories of Barnacle Love — alas, as the author moved into the book they became mere echoes of the previous experience and were replaced by far more disturbing (and less convincing) material.
In summation, if you come across a copy of Barnacle Love, pick it up; the two sets of interlinked stories are both substantial achievements and it is a very good collection. This novel, on the other hand, you can easily give a miss.