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Kicking the Sky is Anthony De Sa's first novel and it is a good one! De Sa uses the real murder of Emmanuel Jaques in 1977 in Toronto (known then as "Toronto the good") as the base event of the novel. News reports from the time indicate much about 1977 Canada. Jaques was a twelve year old shoeshine boy working on Yonge Street who was lured to an apartment and raped and killed by a group of men. Toronto awoke on an August day to the news of this lurid sex crime; the victim a member of the Portuguese community whose body was found on a roof above a Yonge Street body rub parlour in a green garbage bag. Some 12,000 people from the Portuguese community marched through the streets of Toronto protesting this vicious murder. The event shocked and disturbed the whole of Canada. York University has a collection of materials about the 1977 case here.
As a result of the event several misconceptions became evident. Canadians had to think about the difference between pedophilia and being gay; had to realize they were not the same. Toronto was changed; Yonge Street cleaned up. Many prominent Canadians blamed the immigrants for the problems. De Sa was the eleven year old son of Portuguese parents making a home in Canada at the time of the crime, and in a short essay available on the publisher's web page he explains that:
The city had a reputation for cleanness and moral rectitude—Toronto the Good—but in the summer of 1977, things changed when a twelve-year-old Portuguese boy shining shoes, surrounded by the strip clubs, bars, and body rub parlors of Yonge Street, was lured away from his friends to earn a bit of extra money. Four days later the boy's body was discovered. He had been brutally raped and murdered. The boy's name was Emanuel Jaques, but the media had stolen his name from us and dubbed him "the shoeshine boy." The Portuguese of Toronto mobilized and took their revolt to the streets, demanding change. The crime sparked national outrage and led to a massive cleanup of the sex trade in Canada's biggest city. For almost a year, the highly publicized crime and the case against the three men who perpetrated the crime exposed the dangers of the industrial city—for many immigrants, the first city they had ever lived in. I will never forget that summer when the murder of that boy prompted my father to secure a deadbolt to our front door. Our city's dark underbelly was exposed, and everything changed: friends, family, and my childhood innocence.
This coming of age novel revolves around the crime and its impact on the community, and the inevitable changes that come to the community, to Toronto, and to the country. The narrator, Antonio, and his buddies Manny and Ricky are just starting summer holidays when the story begins. The children are often alone as the parents must work two or more jobs to support the family in their new country. It is tight knit community but the boys are free to roam pretty much on their own. But when the body is found the boys are restricted to their own houses and the back lanes and garages of the immediate neighborhood. They are soon hanging out with James, a young man who is renting a garage along a back lane, and is a cool customer, who becomes involved with them in ways that makes Antonio suspicious. James saves Agnes, a sixteen year old girl who has become pregnant, kicked out be her mother - and the boys start helping by bringing food, money and other services to help James and Agnes.
The power of the story is primarily in the relationships between family members -- Antonio and his mother and father, his sister, and, of course, his friends. For several weeks in the summer Antonio's father runs a religious healing scam with Antonio presented in the garage as the agent of special powers. Hundreds show up to be "healed".
And then there is the Church, the community, the cultural practices imported from Portugal -- these are fascinating and presented in rich detail. One theme that is constant is discovery -- where is the body of the victim, who is guilty of the crime, what is the confusing nature of sex, who can be trusted, why do adults tell so many lies?
The novel is readable, rich in detail, funny at times, heart-breaking at other times, and presents characters that are human and fully developed.
As De Sa explains, "But over the course of almost a year, through the unraveling courtroom drama and media stories about the shoeshine boy murder, I became more aware of the dashed hopes of my parents and those in my neighborhood, of the power of faith and the role of church, and of the terrifying confluence of power and desire that these elements fostered in my community. As an eleven-year-old boy, I was exposed to a dark and cruel world, where I learned about bravery and cowardice, life and death, and the heart's capacity for love and desire. But I would never let go of the feeling of soaring over rooftops, and I will never forget the thrilling moment when I leapt higher than ever before to kick at the sky."
Anthony De Sa has published short fiction in several literary magazines. He teaches creative writing in Toronto where he lives with his wife and three sons.
© 2014 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.