"The Kid" by Sapphire (2011)
"'You done broke de' mirror!' Ol' bitch hollering at me. 'You know how old dat mirror is!' I can't get with her voice, like it don't really connect to me but float over me, like it ain't real, maybe none of this shit is real, me laying on glass in the salt-metal smell of my own blood, this old roach room."
"The Kid" is Sapphire's second novel. It is the sequel to "Push," which was made into the movie "Precious." I've read parts of "Push," and I've seen the movie, but this is the first of Sapphire's books that I've actually sat down and read from beginning to end.
In "The Kid," Precious' son Abdul Jamal goes through a series of personal upheavals following his mother's AIDS-related death. He is shipped off to a nightmarish foster home, sent to live in a Catholic boys' school, and spends time with his maternal great-grandmother. Along the way he struggles with his sexuality, the racism one encounters in New York, and learns about his mother's family. He also develops a love of dance, and dreams of becoming a celebrated dancer.
The author of this book is very fond of putting things in CAPS and adding exclamation marks to every other sentence! There is also a lot of fucking profanity in this book! I SUPPOSE she is trying to communicate the fucking MOOD swings of her PROTAGONIST, but as a literary device it gets FUCKING annoying....!
I also had trouble with Abdul Jamal as a character. In his inner dialogue he veers from the academic English he learned in Catholic school, to the slang learned in the streets. His use of this academic English often seems inauthentic, and more like an attempt to make him seem "multidimensional."
He also displays a kind of vulnerability that is at odds with his environment. If he really was this sensitive dancer underneath, wouldn't he have to worry about how this identity would be perceived by others? Wouldn't he worry that they would think he was gay? The ease with which he throws himself into dance creates a dissonance with other plot elements, and this dissonance could have been alleviated by either making the novel shorter, or by less obvious attempts at creating a dichotomy within his character.
I have other problems with this book. For one thing, the Catholic priests in this novel are little more than absurd caricatures, and portraying them as ravenous pedophiles seems a bit too convenient. Parts of his grandmother's back story also seem a bit too close to something you would come across in a Toni Morrison novel. This novel seems stitched together from many disparate parts, and one longs for the kind of voice heard in "Push."
"The Kid" not only tries to be deep, but also to be shocking and socially conscious at the same time. It fails on all counts. The unresolved, unexplained contradictions which make up the protagonist's personality mediate against any depth that might have been achieved. The shock value of this novel disappears somewhere after the second beating and the third rape. And any sense of social consciousness is diminished by the very real faults of the family that lie at the center of this story. How can we blame society for a woman who gets pregnant at 10, has a mentally retarded daughter, and allows this daughter to marry a man who would later father a son by his own daughter? My point is that we could hold society accountable for this, but the way in which Sapphire tells the story will not allow us to do so. The author has failed to negotiate that fine line between individual and collective responsibility, and in the absence of such negotiation we are left with characters that one cannot sympathize with, and a society which is almost entirely blameless.
The last 1/4 of this book, however, is actually pretty good, but by then the story and the characters that inhabit it have worn out their welcome. This is really too bad, since the section detailing My Lai's personal history would have made a great short story. The character of Abdul Jamal also seems to coalesce near the end, but it's as if the remaining 3/4 of the book was about someone else, someone much harder to relate to.
"The Kid" tries to be a good book, but fails. A particularly damaging feature of the novel is that it mentions Charles Dickens, who wrote "Oliver Twist," a much better book that covers similar territory. In "Oliver Twist" we see a novel that is deep with human drama, which continues to shock, and which points out social ills which are still prevalent today. In "The Kid" we see a book that aspires to such heights, but can't get above ground level.