The Kid

The poet and novelist Sapphire is undoubtedly the only living author to have her name appear in the title of a major motion picture, Lee Daniels’s 2009 Academy Award-winning Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. Such conspicuous advertisement of both author and text is a brilliant bit of literary marketing; it’s also the perfect setup for a sequel.

Sapphire’s second novel, The Kid, arrives fourteen years after Push, nine years in the fiction’s time. Push introduces the impossibly ill-fated Claireece Precious Jones, a poor, obese, illiterate teenage mother of two of her own father’s children—one born with Down syndrome and the other the titular “kid” of Sapphire’s second novel. Precious struggles against nearly impossible odds to earn an education and to provide for herself and for her children, only to discover that her father has infected her with HIV. Near the novel’s end, we find Precious holding her infant son in her arms, contemplating a future she may not live to see.

The Kid certainly reads like a sequel—call it “Son of Precious.” As with Push, Sapphire renders her narrative in the first person. But where Precious’s voice is one of stylized subliteracy building to a kind of homespun eloquence, Abdul Jamal Louis Jones’s voice is precocious and precise. Abdul’s narration marries the real with the imagined, endowing both his roving consciousness and his lived experience with equal authority.

When the novel opens, Abdul is nine years old and facing the most traumatic event of his young life: his mother’s death from complications of AIDS. Though Precious is gone, her presence pervades the novel’s early chapters through scraps of memory and Abdul’s continued conversations with her imagined voice. Together these fragmentary remembrances tell the story of the interceding years between Push and The Kid. We learn that Precious had completed her GED and enrolled in college. We learn that she was a sometimes stern but always loving mother to her son (her daughter has become a ward of the state). Though her own mother was emotionally and sexually abusive to her, Precious became the kind of mother that takes her child to concerts at Lincoln Center and visits art exhibits at Manhattan museums—all while living in the face of her illness.

The main action of the novel follows Abdul as he searches for a place to call home. Whatever security the novel allows him, however, ends with his mother’s death. Soon after he arrives at his first foster home, his new “mother” renames him J.J. out of expediency; and, in what will be the first of the novel’s many shocking scenes of sexual violence, he is gang-raped by his new foster brothers. After a period of hospitalization, Child Welfare places him at St. Ailanthus, a Harlem school run by Catholic brothers.

Here the novel skips ahead four years, and we are reintroduced to an Abdul reshaped and perhaps distorted by his experiences. Gone is the innocence and idealism that made him an easy victim, replaced by knowledge of human cruelty that leads him to become a victimizer himself. He forces himself sexually upon smaller boys, even as the Catholic brothers force themselves upon him.

In the world that Sapphire creates, nine-year-old boys raped by twelve-year-old boys become thirteen-year-old boys that rape five-year-old boys. It is a world in which adults are most often abusers, exploiting their power so as to satiate their basest desires. It is also a world in which the purest motives—of love and kinship and security—are disfigured the moment one seeks to realize them.

In her unstinting view of violence—often sexualized and racialized—Sapphire follows in the tradition of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and, above all, Gayl Jones: all black women writers who emerged in the 1970s and whose fiction often features horrific acts committed by and upon their characters. These earlier authors write about rape, incest, and other forms of sexual violence in ways that do not simply exploit them for shock value or to shatter taboos, but use that abuse to understand something essential about the human condition. Sapphire extends the tradition by intensifying the explicit nature of the sex and violence, but in doing so she risks reducing them to mere spectacle.

Not all is abuse and manipulation, Sapphire insists, for it is at the Catholic school that Abdul’s artistic sensibilities begin to flourish. The Kid might best be described as a perverse portrait of the artist as a young man. He excels at dance, and dance provides him hope. Sapphire wants her readers to recognize her young protagonist’s artistic gifts, which find expression in his physical grace and in his linguistic command. But Abdul is both dancer and deviant, and the reader must endure jarring shifts between his aesthetic reveries and scenes of debasement. He enjoys sex with men but rails against “faggots.” He seems to long for love but appears incapable of fostering it. Sapphire asks the reader to accept that art can transform even a character as seemingly incapable of inspiring empathy as Abdul.

The Kid is, paradoxically, both fairy tale and nightmare—a fathomable distance when one considers that both rely upon authorial manipulation and both reside far from actual experience. Certainly, the book displays a remarkable technical facility. The language is a sinuous blend of the literary and the colloquial, the spoken and the suppressed. But what makes the book at times unpalatable and, perhaps for some readers, unreadable is the dissonance between the excruciating descriptions of sexual violence and the absence of moral vision.

The greatest wisdom the novel imparts is that violence begets more violence and the cycle of abuse is everlasting. Abdul’s great-grandmother, whom he mockingly refers to as “Slavery Days” for her age and perceived ignorance, offers this assessment of Abdul to a visiting social worker: “How you gonna fault him? You gotta look at de peoples who was keepin’ care of him all dis time. He ain’ learnt dat all by his lonesome…”

The great-grandmother’s moral logic only takes us so far, though. It seems to suggest that someone is to blame for all this hurt, just not Abdul. But the novel finds no fault—not with the Catholic brothers that rape the children in their charge, not with the children that rape other children, not with the system that watches impassively as it happens, not with the protagonist himself, who gives at least as much pain as he gets.

Most of us expect something more than just documentary from our writers: not that they should solve intractable societal problems, but that they should at least grapple with them so that we might better attend to them ourselves. The Kid fails to meet the humanizing responsibility of fiction not just to uncover but to illuminate the dark corners of human experience. Undoubtedly, as with Push, many critics will applaud The Kid for what they’ll read as its difficulty and its daring. But such interpretations miss the fact that there is nothing easier than shocking people with explicit sexual violence and paint-peeling profanity, nothing safer than exposing and exploiting someone else’s pain.