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book review

What the Yonge Street Strip looked like in the mid-1970s.Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

Anthony De Sa may be the most impressive two-book-oeuvre writer in Canada. His first, the story collection Barnacle Love, published in 2008, was a memorable evocation of life in Toronto's Portuguese community, and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Toronto Book Award. If De Sa's second book, the novel Kicking the Sky, had been on this year's Giller long list, which was announced Monday (it isn't), I wouldn't have been surprised. If it isn't on the Toronto Book Award list, I'll be shocked. De Sa, who is described on the book's cover as a librarian-teacher in Toronto, has given us a beguiling coming-of-age story – harked back to an event that shocked the country and had massive repercussions – and at the same time managed to beautifully capture a community and an era.

Kicking the Sky brings back the immigrant Rebelo family: Manuel, the head of the family, man of all work, who in Barnacle Love left his Azorean village to make a better life in North America and washed ashore in Newfoundland; mother Georgina, "spelled in Portuguese with a J," nurse and worm-picker, since everyone has two jobs; their teenaged daughter, Terri, and 12-year-old Antonio, the narrator of the story.

Antonio and his two friends, Manny and Ricky, cruise the laneways of Little Portugal and beyond, exploring the city on their bicycles. ("I rode a Raleigh Chopper, red like the Ford Gran Torino they called Striped Tomato on Starsky & Hutch. My father had bought me the bike around Easter. He said it was a boy's bike, not like the other one I'd been riding, which had been my sister's.") On the day the book opens, in the summer of 1977, the three boys have decided to ride into the city to search downtown Yonge Street – at the time made up of strip clubs, massage parlours and thinly disguised bordellos – for Emanuel Jaques, the 12-year-old Portuguese shoeshine boy who had disappeared just days before, lured away by the promise of $35 for helping a man move some photographic equipment.

Before the boys can begin their quest, however, Emanuel's body is found. He has been raped, drowned in a sink and hidden under a pile of wood on the roof of a body-rub parlour. This event is a constant dark note throughout the rest of the novel, with rippling consequences and massive repercussions – community rallies and demonstrations, restrictions on children who have always roamed freely, doors locked for the first time in anyone's memory, and homophobic behaviour from the petty to the dreadful – and highlights the cynicism and hypocrisy of the adult world generally.

Emanuel's death is a clear-cut signal of the death of innocence, for the city, the community and especially for the pre-adolescent boys at the centre of the story. Antonio's thoughts and dreams become increasingly heated as he becomes more and more aware of what is going on around him – when you're 12, you are acutely sensitive to sexuality in all its forms – and as the novel goes along, De Sa ratchets the sexual tension tighter and tighter.

The cast of characters is memorable and charming (though not always lovable), and totally credible, inhabiting an equally well-drawn community. There is Antonio's hard-working immediate family, of course, and his two pals, his blood brothers, Manny the insouciant bicycle thief, and Ricky, who tends to his drunken father and makes money in ways Antonio doesn't want to think about. Aunt Edite is not really an aunt, but Antonio's father's cousin, a chain-smoking free spirit who moved into the neighbourhood from New York, a reporter who dispenses wisdom to the boys and digs obsessively into the Emanuel Jaques case, and who is not averse to exploiting her sexual "contacts" in the police department.

James, an older boy, is a hustler who lives in a garage down the laneway; his semi-adult body and casual nudity rock Antonio in ways he can't understand. And Agnes, the gorgeous 15-year-old who lives across the street from Antonio, is fodder for his fantasies until she becomes pregnant and is thrown out of her home, ending up with James in his garage. Her pregnancy, and its effect on the boys, is an ongoing story, and one with a grim yet apropos conclusion. One memorable minor character is Padre Costa, parish priest, who among other things uses the confessional to keep his finger on the pulse of the neighbourhood. "We all knew how conceited he was," Antonio tells us. "He must have been at least sixty but he still used Grecian Formula and had his teeth capped. According to Manny, he tanned in the rectory's backyard in a Speedo."

Padre Costa plays a small but significant role in one of the novels strongest and more entertaining story threads. Antonio, eating limpets, finds what appears to be the face of Jesus in one of the shells. Soon after, when he is buying cigarettes for his father, Senhora Rosa, proprietress of the convenience store, touches his hand and swears her arthritis has been cured. The word spreads and before you know it, Manuel has turned the Rebelo garage into a sort of shrine, and people come from all over the city, and even from the United States, to line up in the alley to see Antonio and his limpet/Christ. And to pay for the privilege, of course. Despite Antonio's discomfiture, the garage keeps on drawing crowds, and suddenly Padre Costa is there, ready to shut the operation down – unless he receives 50 per cent of the donations.

Life goes on and the seasons pass, situations resolve themselves and people move on. Ricky returns to the Azores and finds family. Edite connects with an old lover. James and Agnes leave town together, going who knows where. The men responsible for Emanuel Jaques's murder are convicted and jailed. And Antonio Rebelo grows up.

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