After adapting Sapphire’s debut novel, Push, into the box-office hit and Oscar-winner Precious, Hollywood probably wasn’t expecting the author to start her follow-up with the protagonist’s funeral. The spectral presence of Claireece “Precious” Jones hangs over the first section of The Kid, as her 9-year-old son, Abdul Jamal Louis Jones, copes with her death (presumably from complications related to HIV, though from Abdul’s perspective, it remains unclear) through a mix of delusion and denial. But after his experiences at an abusive foster home and an archetypally sinister Catholic school, his thoughts of her dissipate, leaving him to narrate his attempts to become a professional dancer, with rampant violent sexual fantasies along the way.
The written dialect Sapphire used to demonstrate Precious’ progression from trapped, illiterate victim to confident mother taking control of her life made Push remarkable as well as controversial. Without any such stylistic device in place, Abdul initially comes across as more intelligent, but he’s unhinged and seething, while still derivative of Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son. Wright’s novel examined racial inequality at a distinct point in time in Chicago, and offered larger social commentary on racial inequality and the barbarization of black males, but Sapphire’s second novel is a character study like her debut, this time even more focused on sexual abuse in perversely graphic detail.
The arc of redemption through art is clear throughout the novel, but Abdul’s overindulgence in violent fantasy diminishes the sympathy readers can have with his dreams of dancing, admirable and disarming though they are. Abdul revels in memories of rape and rampage, at times seemingly nostalgic for another 13-year-old boy he assaulted in school, while pointedly denying any inherent deviant sexuality. Sapphire occasionally jumps into other characters’ stories, offering a brief respite from an uncomfortable narrator, but those outside characters are far more sympathetic, because while their lives are full of unspeakable hardships, they aren’t borderline-psychotic criminals like Abdul.
The Kid only briefly examines its most interesting question, the effect of environment on childhood development. Mostly, it over-relies on shock value and incoherent dream sequences that confuse more than they reveal, never fully fleshing out or distinguishing a tormented teen with sensationalized mental instability. By killing off Precious so quickly, The Kid severs ties with the themes of Sapphire’s debut and creates its own world, but still engages in unnecessary miserablist one-upmanship to the point where the graphic details get in the way of any message.