What fan of fiction doesn’t have her favorite coming-of-age novel? Some of literature’s most memorable protagonists pepper the timeless genre: Holden Caulfield, Jane Eyre, Ponyboy, Scout Finch, Huckleberry Finn.
In this vein, Antonio Rebelo is the wide-eyed, twelve-year-old narrator of Anthony De Sa’s new novel, Kicking the Sky. It opens in a blue-collar, Portuguese immigrant neighborhood of Toronto, Canada. A young boy has disappeared, setting the tightly knit community on edge. “It was the summer that no one slept …,” recalls Antonio. “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.”
When it turns out that Emanuel was abducted, raped and murdered, the grisly crime threatens to rend the community apart, uncovering deep-seated resentments and revealing an underbelly of homophobia and abuse. The stage is set, and from the opening pages, Antonio is catapulted into a series of challenges both moral and physical that he navigates with the help of his two best friends, Manny and Ricky. More in the spirit of The Outsiders than The Catcher in the Rye, they are confronted with a gauntlet of thugs, drugs, sexual awakening in all its messy ambiguity, drunk and abusive fathers, pedophiles and overprotective parents. Manny and Ricky spin out of control as Manny gets deeper into drugs and Ricky starts to turn tricks, but Antonio maintains his role as the moral compass and manages to keep their friendship intact.
While I found myself engaged in Antonio’s narrative, De Sa occasionally falls prey to the same pitfalls as many authors who tackle the coming-of-age-novel: a tendency to inflate the value of otherwise mundane observations. In trying to capture that wide-eyed wonder of a twelve-year-old facing the adult world, De Sa sometimes bombards us with trivialities that bog down the poignancy of the story, as with a strangely incongruous piece of backstory that could have easily been cut, when Antonio notices his mother’s “quiet white hospital shoes covered in tiny holes that the German woman at Sasmart said were for aeration.” (De Sa’s italics.) But ultimately De Sa has an eye for nuanced observations. His narrative is strongest in simple heartfelt experiences where understanding is often unspoken. Packed into the church for Emanuel’s funeral, Antonio narrates, “I poked my finger into the collar of my shirt and tugged. My mother drew my hand down and held it at my side.” It’s a simple brush stroke that conveys more than the sum of its parts.
Could I unconditionally recommend this book? Well, I don’t think it’s for everyone. Some of the moral conflicts that Antonio grapples with (homosexuality, teen-pregnancy, pornography) seem outdated, and yet it’s that naiveté that captures the hermetically sealed culture of Antonio’s community. Ultimately, De Sa’s fresh and earnest take on the classic coming-of-age story makes it a must-read for any lover of novels that portray the anguish and the ecstasy of growing up.
Ian Wolff is a writer living in Albuquerque. He has two self-published collections of prose available online through the iBooks store, and his prose, essays and a film based on one of his short stories can be found at www.ianzwolff.com.