“Push” ended on a hopeful note, with Precious freeing herself from the abuse that had deformed her young life -- she was raped and twice impregnated by her father -- and determined to do better by her children.
At the beginning of “The Kid,” we find out just how successful she was. Once illiterate, she buckled down and made it into college. She became a lovingly stern single mother. And then her sad past caught up with her: “Abuse truncated her life and led to the AIDS ... which finally took it.”
We see her funeral through the bewildered eyes of the 9- year-old Abdul, whose luck has run out in a very big way. The first stop on his journey to hell is a foster home where he’s raped and beaten so badly that he has to be hospitalized.
He spends the next several years in a Harlem orphanage as the sexual plaything of the Catholic brothers who run it. He learns, in his turn, to abuse the smaller kids.
It’s hardly surprising that an African-American novelist should feel drawn to themes of victimization, but Sapphire embraces them with a relish that borders on the unseemly. The sex is extensive and explicit, though it’s too humiliating to be a turn-on. (For most people, I suppose I should add.)
Nor is Abdul the pure victim his mother was. For one thing, he has the advantage of those first nine years of love, support and character building. For another, he becomes a victimizer himself.
Moreover, he’s a natural aristocrat. Unlike Precious, he’s strong and beautiful, and he uses his beauty to get money from older men.
He’s also a gifted dancer, as he starts to discover when he stumbles, by accident, into an African dance class. The most absorbing parts of the novel track Abdul’s artistic growth, as he’s taken up (pedagogically and sexually) by an aging ballet teacher and then flowers as a performer in a downtown troupe.
But triumph isn’t Sapphire’s territory. “The Kid,” like “Push,” is an interior monologue, and after you spend a few pages inside Abdul’s head you can tell he isn’t headed anywhere you want to go. It’s a mess in there.
He’s in denial (understandably) about his origins, and his sexuality is (also understandably) badly confused. This denial and confusion take the form of a generalized hostility that threatens at any moment to turn murderous.
He’s vile to the people who try to help him, and the affection he thinks he feels for the objects of his lust isn’t very convincing. Kindness is beyond him. His reasons for hating are all too just, but they don’t make his hatred attractive.
Sapphire, who has published two collections of poetry, uses a lot of dream imagery, and in long swatches of this longish book she recounts Abdul’s (usually awful) dreams. I zone out when my own friends insist on telling me about their fascinating dreams. I found myself fighting the same impulse during much of “The Kid.”
“The Kid” is published by the Penguin Press (376 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)