Penguin, 374 pages, $25.95
Updated: July 10, 2011 2:22AM
Reading the work of Sapphire is like reading James Baldwin. It is a reminder that raw and difficult human truth should always be communicated by poets with such heart, skill and force. In her new book, The Kid, Sapphire drops us into the hard life and streaming thoughts of Abdul Jones, son of Precious Jones, the character made famous by the author’s 1997, debut novel, Push, and subsequent film, “Precious.”
In Push, Sapphire introduced us to an American family inhabiting the urban margins where far too many people must endure poverties of every kind imaginable. And although in the first book, Precious fought and pushed for an identity for herself away from her abusive parents, her son, Abdul, is offered little chance to push for anything for himself as he suffers immediately and terribly in the first pages of The Kid. His mother is dead, and for the rest of the novel, Abdul endures this profound loss of the love given by his mother in the short time they had together, and the fact that no other true, unselfish love is on offer.
Tragedy and ruin stalk this child. Sapphire gives Abdul a frank, intimate and urgent voice that, though it often repels, has a cadence that compels both the character and the reader to endure, with hope of some kind of liberation from all of the abuse both taken and delivered. Abdul is left alone and unprotected in the world after his mother is gone. He is a bright star of a 9-year-old boy whose powerful imagination (joyfully cultivated by his mother) makes for him a rich inner and artistic life. But after her death, he is ripped from everything he owns and knows. He is first tortured in a madhouse of a foster home and then placed in the “care” of Jesuit Brothers who sexually abuse him until that 9-year-old quasar of boundless potential becomes a rapist of children himself.
In its all-or-nothing explicitness, its relentless procession of sexual assault and easy cruelty, the first half of the book is hard to read without feeling sick. A child without protection in a world of vipers sometimes becomes one himself. At one point, Abdul’s grandmother is found, but even that tiny respite is short-lived and at 13, he ends up in the home of a dance instructor who wants a child “boyfriend,” and Abdul gets a kind of home and a vocation, but his awful abuse continues until he is big enough, and violent enough, to leave.
It is trite to describe Sapphire’s work as merely bleak, and it would be a mistake to assume that the only driving point of such a story — describing violence, loneliness, misery — removes the possibility of any light amidst the shadows. This is a greatly textured story, varying from mood to mood, line to line, devoted to encompassing the deceptions, placations and terrors of Abdul’s mental landscape. At 19, when Abdul tries to build a new life among artists — and conceals his early life by his silence, his lies and behind his immense talent — we can be satisfied that Sapphire never allowed herself to be drawn into such a retreat for the sake of easy storytelling. The people surrounding Abdul are not fooled.
For Sapphire, the study of life’s accountabilities big, small and unknown is the whole point. She overcomes the melodramatic nature of her material through the power of her language, rhythmic and poetic. Like Baldwin, she renders her characters’ actions with clear-eyed attention to the context of their all-too-human circumstances. The sparkling boy at his mother’s coffin is surely destroyed yet may still be walking the streets. We are not left off the hook. Sapphire is silent after all, and The Kid remains a story and a potent invitation to reality.
M.E. Collins is a local free-lance writer.