“The Kid,” by Sapphire; The Penguin Press, 2011.
At the end of “Push,” the heartbreaking 1996 novel that introduced the character of Precious, baby Abdul represents a glimmer of hope amid the grim landscape of the main character’s troubled life.
“When the sun shine on him like this, he is an angel child. Brown sunshine,” the HIV-positive Precious muses as she holds her son and wonders how much time she will have with him.
In “The Kid,” author Sapphire picks up Abdul’s story about nine years later. His mother has just died, leaving the young boy confused, angry and alone — a state that will shroud him through the entire novel.
Abdul is quickly thrust into the dark, often cruel, labyrinth of the child welfare system, landing first in a chaotic and violent foster home, then in a Catholic boys’ orphanage where he is promised refuge, but is instead subjected to sexual abuse masquerading as love.
Through a first-person narrative that floats indiscriminately among dream, memory and reality, Abdul — known alternately as J.J., Jamal, Arthur and Crazy Horse — describes his harrowing journey through childhood and his desperate search for identity and salvation.
“I don’t get it no matter how I try, how could a kid be normal? Normal!” Abdul cries after being tossed out of the Catholic school and sent to live with a decrepit stranger who turns out to be his great-grandmother. “How could I end up tossed salad? Thirteen?”
Along the way, Abdul pieces together bits of his disturbing family history (much of which should already be familiar to the readers of “Push” and anyone who saw “Precious,” the acclaimed film adaptation of that novel). He also emerges as both victim and victimizer, preying on small boys in the orphanage just as the priests preyed on him, and later attacking men who pick him up for an onymous sex.
If this seems unrelentingly grim, it is. The world in which Abdul resides is filled with dysfunction, violence, sexual predators and pain. Unlike “Push,” where Precious finds safe harbor with a caring teacher, there are no saviors in “The Kid.”
Even Abdul’s one bit of joy — the talent he discovers as a dancer — comes tangled in deception and exploitation.
“My body is not a stranger,” he thinks during a dance class. “Here my body is my own, here I am a Crazy Horse dude who never gave up. … Here in the beat is my life.”
In “Push,” Sapphire deftly inhabited the mind of Precious, an illiterate 16-year-old girl who had been raped repeatedly by her father (giving birth to two of his children) and brutally abused by her sadistic mother. There, the stream-of-consciousness technique brilliantly captured the protagonist’s transformation from ignorance to independence.
But in “The Kid,” that technique only muddles the story. Too much of the novel blurs into incoherence, or seems to revel in the pathologies that plague Abdul and the other characters.
Abdul’s thoughts slide from truth to lies, from real life to nightmare, from fantasy to veracity. He can no longer distinguish what happened from what he imagined.
The trouble is, neither can the reader.