In the summer of 1977 Toronto was a city on the move, a boomtown rising out of the ashes of the Big Smoke. Finishing touches were being placed on an improbably ambitious building in the south of the city that, when completed, would be the tallest freestanding structure in the entire world. The glittering Eaton Centre had just opened its doors. The Maple Leafs seemed on the precipice of greatness following a season in which their captain, Darryl Sittler, had scored ten points in a single game. The Blue Jays were winging their way into existence. And then, amid it all, arrived the news of the Emanuel Jacques murder.
Jacques was a twelve-year-old shoeshine boy who had recently immigrated to Canada from the Azores. Offering him $35 to help move some photography equipment, three men lured Jacques into a room above the Charlie’s Angels body-rub parlour on Yonge Street where they held him captive for twelve hours. They assaulted and raped him repeatedly. Afterwards, he was strangled and drowned in a kitchen sink. Three days later, one of the men confessed and led the police to Jacques’s body, which had been hidden under a pile of debris on the building’s roof. The two remaining men were apprehended shortly afterward on a train bound for the West Coast.
It is the Jacques murder that provides the background of Anthony De Sa’s affecting, intensely personal second book, Kicking the Sky:
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 city noise. A persistent hum was all we heard.
This “persistent hum” that pervades the city in the aftermath of the Jacques murder is heard with particular clarity by young Antonio Rebelo, the novel’s narrator. Like Jacques, Antonio is twelve years old, and, although he has not actually met the murdered boy, Antonio understands the two of them to be part of the same Portuguese community. Like his best friends, Manny and Ricky, Antonio sees the Jacques murder as a reminder of his vulnerability, but also a call to action. “Our parents had told us to be afraid,” Antonio relates, “warned us of the dangers lurking on the city’s main drag. But we wouldn’t let their fears stop us.”
Despite such resolution—or perhaps because of it—Antonio finds himself affected by the murder, his life enveloped by it. “Our teachers … spent those first weeks trying to make sense of Emanuel’s murder for us,” he recalls. “From day one, every assignment, every class discussion had a kind of sadness to it.” In one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, the slaughter of a pig coincides with the news that Jacques’s body has been discovered. De Sa’s prose works subtly to convey how the two events have become enmeshed in his youthful narrator’s mind as the death of the pig is described with a morbid sensuality: “The pig continued to struggle, letting out high-pitched squeals. My uncles took up their positions along the pig’s haunches and pressed their weight against its rough skin … before I knew it I had climbed onto the table and found myself sitting on top of the pig’s hind legs.” An active participant in the slaughter, Antonio is ushered into manhood. But at the same time—indeed at the very instant when the neck of the animal is opened—Antonio catches a glimpse of a face in the crowd to which he is inexplicably drawn:
The pig’s muscles tensed, its squeal stretched into a cry … I was looking for Manny and Ricky when I saw a face I had never seen before. He stood in the laneway with the others, but he didn’t belong. He was younger than all the rest, maybe twenty or so. His blue eyes looked at me sitting atop the pig. He smiled, and I thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen, more handsome than the Marlboro Man or any of the actors or singers my sister had cut out of Tiger Beat and plastered on her bedroom walls.
If the scene is somewhat heavy-handed—homoerotic desire makes its debut at the very moment De Sa’s protagonist mounts a bleeding pig—it also captures the confusions of adolescence and the unpredictability of desire. The enticing face in the crowd belongs to James, a seductive stranger who remains both a forbidding and inviting presence to Antonio for the rest of the novel as he struggles to define and accept his sexual orientation in a place and time where homophobia—after the Jacques murder—is rampant. De Sa gives us what is a coming-of-age novel, in other words, but one that takes place in a world where innocence seems an impossibility.
Things become more complex for Antonio after he sees the face of Jesus in a limpet shell, a miracle that would be hilarious if not for the fact that everyone in Antonio’s world takes it so seriously. “It’s a sign,” declares his father, holding the shell in his shaking hands. “It’s what everyone’s been waiting for,” whispers his mother. Antonio’s parents are firmly working class: his mother works long hours in a hospital sterilization department “where they fired up all the test tubes and beakers that held diseases and body parts”; his father runs a construction business specializing in digging out basements. Antonio sympathizes with the plight and position of his father at the same time as he is alienated by it, embarrassed by his parents’ fervent Catholicism, but also by the nakedly entrepreneurial manner in which his father reacts to the sighting of the limpet miracle, turning Antonio into a local celebrity, allegedly able to cure the sick and console the inconsolable. “It’s the right thing to do,” Antonio tries telling himself as he surveys the line of people who have come to be “cured” by him, as unmoored from their certainties by the Jacques murder as he is himself, “they just needed to believe in something.”
Kicking the Sky reminds us of a time before Toronto was the megacity it is today, when it was on the precipice of the cosmopolitan, but was not quite there. De Sa takes us back to the summer when the city found itself suddenly transformed, when it, like Antonio himself, struggled to understand itself. Like the riot at Christie Pits in the 1930s, the murder of Emanuel Jacques seemed to many—then, as now—the sort of thing that could never happen in Toronto the Good. De Sa’s novel reminds us that this is not the case. That it was never the case.