Review of “The Kid,” by Sapphire

 

(Note: this review was written for Transition magazine back in 2012, but apparently never accepted.)

Whether through expectation or intent, too many American black writers take the low road into petty-bourgeois minstrelsy: think Mary B. Morrison, Carl Weber or Michael Baisden. A huge moral evasiveness damns much of their work; it is far more insidious than in the works of white writers who, generally speaking, make considerably less noise about “keeping it real.” Urban life, as depicted by the K’wans and Vicki Stringers is, for the most part, imaginary: a collection of prurient fantasies tailored for a public—largely middle-class, and often white—that could care less how “real” they are. Their books clutter the shelves of Barnes and Noble and sell by the truckloads on Harlem street corners, and are as iniquitous as and possibly even more dangerous than anything written by Thomas Dixon: the very blackness of these authors lends them a credibility they do not deserve. There is no need to consider their artistic “integrity” since these authors are simply, in effect, selling crack—only to be read, not smoked. Cynical, churlish and childish, their inevitable response when questioned about their total inability to think is “if you don’t like it, don’t read it.” This, of course, is the exact same thing real crack dealers say on these very same streets.

Fantasies these books are, indeed—and from a purely technical standpoint, singularly unambitious in scope and atrociously executed. Dale Peck, in writing of Stanley Crouch’s benighted first attempt at a novel, stated that a bad book can be a blessing. I presume so, if the “blessing” lay in an overrated author leaving himself open to a long-awaited and well-deserved scrutiny. With Sapphire’s second attempt at a novel, The Kid, I am tempted to refrain from passing unduly harsh judgment on a book which, sad to say, is anything but a blessing. I am compelled nonetheless to be honest about the book’s overall construction and content. As for the former, it is a rambling, 374-page falsetto shriek with little in the way of insight and intelligence, to say nothing of plot; the latter, about Abdul Jones, the son of the late Precious Jones (the narrator of her previous book, Push), is distinctly unmemorable—this in spite of our being exposed to virtually everything that Abdul thinks and does in his tortured path from an orphaned childhood to a shaky, confused manhood.

At the tender age of nine, Abdul is hurriedly whisked away from his Aunt Rita in Harlem after witnessing his mother’s funeral. I may be wrong, but I find it far-fetched that a black kid growing up in the bowels of Harlem would know virtually nothing about death, let alone that of his mother. The kid is apparently so ignorant that he knows nothing of new-fangled trash bags: “Rita hands me a shiny plastic square that opens out to be a garbage bag” (p. 28). At times he even sounds like a caricature of an African native attempting to speak English:

 

Coffins? Graveyard? Spooky place from Halloween movies on television. Dracula climbing out the casket with spiderwebs and stuff. Dark, scary stuff. But when the car stops, it’s like a pretty park, green grass, sky blue with fluffy white clouds. I lean back on the seat close my eyes, hear car doors open people talking, hear this car door open, open my eyes, get out…Green grass, the gravestones are little houses; a person is under each one? First a person then they turn into bones? (p. 23)

 

In fact the stupidity of the Harlem denizens depicted is beyond belief. We all know that ignorance, illiteracy and vulgarity damns far too many folk in true-to-life, impoverished Harlem, but the funeral scene itself is absurd; it reads like a racist caricature of a “colored” church gathering, with profanities mixed in to give an illusion of authenticity.

Indeed, one could merely cut to the chase and state unequivocally that the entire novel reads this way, as little Abdul moves from childhood to adolescence. In Book Two, appropriately titled “Falling,” Abdul is now pushing fourteen, six feet tall and attending St. Ailanthus School for Boys. Heretofore exposed to things African and African-American by his late mother Precious, he is further drawn into blackness (so we are led to believe) by occasional visits to the Schomburg Center, where he sees “faggots like Martin Luther King and astronauts and shit” (p. 61). He has a spate of new friends, some of whom, like four-feet Jaime Jose Colon, he rapes for kicks:

 

He’s shivering with excitement. I’m hard. I grab him with both hands, raise his little booty to me. I jam him…It’s so good, tight. He squeal, I slam his face in the pillow, kill that. OOOHHHH this shit feel good!…Bed creaking turn me on more. The in-out creak music. I hear that sound in the dark, turn me on, I know somebody getting it on. Fucking him I wanna sssscream but I don’t…He start to cry. Stupid! Stupid motherfucker (p. 54)

 

St. Ailanthus is a cesspool of pedophilia and religious hypocrisy. Brother John and Brother Samuel in their respective turns have their way with the confused and vulnerable Abdul. “I’m no faggot,” he repeats to himself throughout the book, while “tak(ing) his penis into my mouth” (p. 67). Abdul continues to clown around, eating the food off other student’s plates and screwing his pals until he is expelled from St. Ailanthus for raping Richie Jackson. Despondent, he moves into a foster home with an ex-whore from Mississippi he sneeringly calls “Slavery Days,” apparently from the antiquated way she speaks:

 

Yeah, honey, I was sittin’ up on a rock away from de picnic tables ‘n de music. Lookin’ down de road. Sky blue fluffy clouds, hog on de spit, good smell up yo’ nose. Nigger Boy pluckin’ de banjo. Banjo stop. Somebody start up on guitar. Black shadow cross me, Nigger Boy’s pant legs. Hair on my arm stand up. ‘Youze lookin’ for yo mama?’ (p. 177)

 

It gets worse than this—much, much worse. The monologue is flat-out minstrel dialect, straight out of Octavius Roy Cohen or Thomas Nelson Page. Now even Abdul’s sudden interest in African and Haitian dance does not dampen our suspicions about this novel’s true intent. It may sound cynical, but the writer suspects that the raves for this abysmal book have less to do with its supposed documentation of a soul’s birth and more to do with its resurrection of cheap Nigger Minstrelsy, the hundreds of times the word “motherfucker!” is shrieked, and its graphic depictions of blowjobs between young boys.

My cynicism about this book was not mollified by Abdul’s passage into manhood, his newfound artistic ambitions and erotic encounters with My Lai, a Vietnamese dancer, or his struggle with encroaching mental illness. At times I suspended disbelief and imagined the novel was something of a satirical blast from National Lampoon. It certainly does read like a parody of urban fiction, exemplified by Percival Everett’s “My Pafology,” a novel within a novel (Erasure). Reading “My Pafology” side by side with The Kid one is disturbed at the alarming similarities between the two narratives. Only there’s one problem: The Kid does not attempt to function as satire.

The most ironic and telling thing about Abdul Jones is that, in spite of our knowing virtually his every thought, his every emotion, and having heard his every scream and seen his endless freak-outs and masturbations, he remains as grotesquely one-dimensional as a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Endless episodes of Abdul raping anything that moves, slitting his wrists, cursing life, cursing humanity, the universe, while pretending to be an “artist” do not a character make. Certainly, he does nothing to challenge hardening prejudices against young black men, for as James Baldwin states, “(a)s long as I react as a “nigger,” as long as I protest my case on evidence or assumptions held by others, I’m simply reinforcing those assumptions” (Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality, p. 105). Any non-black reader with a modicum of prejudice toward African Americans can find one’s prejudices further reinforced simply by reading The Kid, for it reveals nothing of the complexity and the humanity of the African American, whether gay or straight, rich or poor, young or old, male or female.

It is not simply a moral failing on Sapphire’s part, but an artistic failing as well. None of The Kid’s non-black characters, such as My Lai or Brother Samuel, are even remotely memorable. The praise that this book has been given seems incomprehensible: “A fascinating novel that may well find a place in the African American literary canon,” writes the Philadelphia Inquirer; “brilliant, blunt, merciless,” Newsday calls it. Well, two of the aforementioned adjectives certainly apply to this book; brilliant isn’t one of them. It is, quite simply, a cartoon, and a bad cartoon at that—specifically tailored for those non-blacks who wish to go slumming inside the mind of a savage Harlem native without, God forbid, going through the trouble of knowing an actual African American. One leaves this book feeling not that one has witnessed the “birth of a soul,” as Entertainment Weekly claims, but insulted, degraded, and swindled out of twenty-six dollars.

 

 

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