by Dmitry Benia
Sergio Kokis’ Funhouse (Simon & Pierre, 260 pages, $18.99 paper, ISBN: 0889242860) seems at first glance to be a standard coming-of-age story with the usual clichés: falling in love, cheating on tests, discovering the family’s dirty secrets, questioning authority, searching for identity. What makes the book memorable is its ability to go beyond a predictable set of events and coded morality. The book sharpens its edges as it cunningly turns to more sophisticated and thought-provoking themes, like gender politics, escapism, prostitution, and poverty.
Look, for example, at the author’s handling of the young protagonist’s moral development. It is 1930s Brazil and his mother is running a whorehouse at home while the kids are in school and the husband is at work. The boy questions the ethics of such an enterprise at first, but when he is offered the use of its services to keep his mouth shut, he accepts. Being corrupted is a conscious decision, and the change of heart makes the boy’s character real and memorable.
The boy’s early exposure to sex, alcohol, and drugs is the source of many amusing and extended reflections on teenage life that develop beyond their anecdotal status, and give the author an opportunity to tackle the serious stuff. Insightful existential observations seamlessly come together in the conclusion. Underpinning the narrative is a romantic description that engages all five senses, placing the reader right next to the character, as for example, when a carnival is viewed as “a sea of sweaty and exhausted bodies filling every street with songs and dances”.
Reading Funhouse is like watching a painter work on his canvas: abandoning initial ideas, concentrating on more challenging contours, delicately defining lines and colours, and at last completing the image. The protagonist, who is a painter in present-day Canada, revisits his teenage years in order to relive the sensations, “for the sole pleasure of seeing these things outside of my head”, and turn them into paintings. The resulting contrast between the countries is sharp, as the narrator compares his heated, dynamic youth to the cold, static aging of an immigrant.
Funhouse is a book that will appeal to young adults because of its themes and exotic setting; at the same time, it provides brilliant insights into adulthood seen through the eyes of a kid, and later, the situation of the foreigner attempting to fit into society. The author has created a perceptive, artistic character whose childhood memories are scrupulously analyzed and preserved for his paintings. Funhouse gives a wonderful and inspiring message: look into your past and draw from it, but first fill it up with a festival of the senses.