"From James McBride, author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird, comes a wise and witty novel about what happens to the witnesses of a shooting. In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .45 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project's drug dealer at point-blank range. The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride's funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood's Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself. As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters--caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York--overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion. Bringing to these pages both his masterly storytelling skills and his abiding faith in humanity, James McBride has written a novel every bit as involving as The Good Lord Bird and as emotionally honest as The Color of Water. Told with insight and wit, Deacon King Kong demonstrates that love and faith live in all of us"--
James McBride’s Deacon King Kong feels like a paean to community lost forever in time. In interviews, he’s cited 1969, the period of the novel, as a sort of transitional time, after the assassination of MLK and the advent of large scale criminal drug operations in New
The novel opens with Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, the Deacon King Kong of the title for his heavy consumption of his pal’s corn liquor, arguing with his dead wife Hettie and moving on to shoot Deems Clemens, a nineteen year old heroin dealer. He and Deems have a history. Sportcoat, as he is also known, for his flamboyant sports coats, taught Deems in Sunday school and served as his baseball coach. He was convinced Deems would make it to the majors, but Deems went for the fast money selling drugs. The shooting turns Sportcoat into a marked man, though finding him proves a very humorous challenge, as he roams around the projects in search of Christmas club money collected and hidden by Hettie before her death. In addition, other intrigues spin around the projects, with Bunch Moon paranoid about rivals cutting into his drug dealing empire, Joe Peck, in the employ of the Italian mob, angling for the territory, and Tom Elefante working at maintaining his independence as a small time transferrer of smuggled good from his boxcar located on the East River within shouting distance of the projects. All these characters are interconnected. How becomes evident as Elefante seeks a missing and reputedly valuable little sculpture spirited out of German after WWII and entrusted to his father by an Irish gangster in the Bronx now on his deathbed. How all these characters, and several others, come to understand their interdependence makes up the crux of the novel, a tale wove together with plenty of good humor by McBride. It’s not too much to reveal that everything works itself out in the end with the characters of good heart having their wishes fulfilled in the end. Dire and rough as these characters’ lives are, McBride leaves your feeling that they process a spirit and zest that often feels missing in modern life.
If you’re looking for a novel in which you can lose yourself for a few hours, one that illustrates without preaching about the importance of community and relationships, and that demonstrates every human life has value and each can enrich the other, you won’t go wrong with McBride’s very good Deacon King Kong.
And through it all goes Sportcoat, always looking for his next drink, haunted by the ghost of his wife and never quite understanding what all the fuss is about.
The story begins in 1969, in the community of the Cause Houses, where an old drunk named Sportcoat shoots a young baseball phenom called Deems, who has turned from sports to the easy money of drug dealing. The shooting sets off reverberations for the main characters, which ripple out through the community, the church, and into the wider world.
At base, it's a plot most of us have heard before - poverty, lack of opportunity, and the promise of easy money leading to drug dealing, crime and competing factions, and ending in violence and far- reaching consequences for all. But McBride's genius here is in his web-spinning, the way he illuminates the tenuous, hidden strands connecting his characters to each other, whether they live in the Cause Houses or on the nearby streets outside. His characters, from Sportcoat himself to Sister Gee and The Elephant, are so vividly drawn that I know I'll be thinking about them for a long time to come. These people are not caricatures. They are full-fledged beings with particular histories and motivations that make the reader laugh with them and grow anxious about what the future holds for them. McBride has endowed them with a depth of humanity that's truly touching, whether that connection stems from delight or sorrow. A story with heart and love and wit, Deacon King Kong celebrates what it is to be in and of community, our lives touching others, and theirs touching us.
e mobster wanting to retreat to a life outside the Italian mafia, finds a way to do that. You hope that Deems, the local drug dealer who before discovering the profits of selling drugs was gifted baseball pitcher, also finds a way to happiness beyond the turf battles over drugs that are beginning to grip Brooklyn public housing projects. The book features a dizzying array of colorful characters, all striving for comfort and a better life. There are so many characters, in fact, that one feels the need to diagram them all out. But at the core of this story is the importance of a caring community, of friendships, of living by the Golden Rule and getting by despite tough circumstances. Deacon King Kong is a colorful, very lively and endearing tale of redemption, and a slice of life lived to the best of these characters' abilities. McBride took a very different path with this novel, so very different from his prior (and great) efforts, and yet Deacon King Kong, like its title character, does not disappoint.
You might feel a trifle overwhelmed in the first chapter as you are introduced to some twenty characters living in the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, characters with names like “Bum-Bum,” “Hot Sausage,” Dominic Lefleur the “Haitian Sensation,” “The Elephant,” Sister Gee, and “The Cousins” (Nanette and Sweet Corny). But the crowd makes you feel at home in the projects, kind of like a big block party. That is, until our title character pulls out a .45-caliber Luger pistol in front of sixteen witnesses and shoots into the face of a 19-year-old local drug dealer named Deems Clemens. Deems turns at the last moment and the bullet grazes the side of his head, taking off most of his ear. The shooter is “Deacon” Cuffy Lambkin (known to most of the folks in the Causeway as “Sportcoat,” but sometimes called “Deacon King Kong” after the best home-made liquor in the neighborhood cooked up by the janitor Rufus on the next block). The 71-year-old Sportcoat used to coach the Causeway Houses boys’ baseball team and Deems had been the team’s star pitcher, who seemed destined to a career of college ball that might lead to a major league contract, until he’d been sidetracked into making fast money working for a drug kingpin. Sportcoat had also been Deems’ Sunday School teacher at the local Five Ends Baptist Church, where Sportcoat is now a deacon (though one of the novel’s running jokes is that nobody seems to know exactly what a deacon does). None of this explains why Sportcoat shot Deems, and Sportcoat doesn’t seem to remember himself, once the alcoholic deacon comes around after his drunken spree.
And this is just the first chapter. But it isn’t only the roistering, turbulent action that gets your blood stirred up while reading this book. It’s also the author’s style. We are often treated to long sentences that go off like a string of firecrackers, their sense turning again and again in a flamboyant surge of multilayered perspective. In one curious chapter called “The March of the Ants,” McBride describes the annual visit of a colony of Colombian ants to the projects, who make their pilgrimage specifically to eat a load of cheese that is mysteriously delivered to the neighborhood every month—sent by Jesus according to some members of Five Ends Church. About the ants arriving from Colombia, McBride writes,
“And there they stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the life of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich—West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious—and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.”
The author who comes closest to matching this kind of writing, to my mind, is that other chronicler of race in America, William Faulkner, whose wandering, colloquial sentences require similar mental gymnastics on the part of the reader. That comparison with Faulkner is not just out of the blue. Like Faulkner, McBride is not shy in demonstrating the hardships with which white Americans have, even unconsciously, burdened black Americans, but is also more than happy to explore areas of common humanity and the opportunities for true love and partnership across racial and ethnic lines. And so it is in this novel.
In this regard, of course, it is the individual characters who play the greatest part. There are plenty of characters in Deacon King Kong, some quirkier than others, but for the most part presented sympathetically, as from a perspective of someone who actually likes people in all their various shapes and forms. The main characters here all tend to be looking for something: Sportcoat is looking for the church’s Christmas Fund, which may have had anything from three to five thousand dollars in it, and which his late wife Hettie hid away and never told anybody where before she died. Hettie, by the way, still argues with him on a regular basis. Or at least, he is constantly arguing with her. As for Deems, like everybody else, he’d like to know why Sportcoat shot him. He’d also like to break away from his supplier and switch to another, which means that the out-of-town assassin sent to punish Sportcoat is likely to be after him as well. The Elephant, an Italian gangster involved in smuggling and transporting stolen property but who refuses to have anything to do with drugs, is approached by an old Irish friend of his father’s (who happens to own a bagel shop—go figure) who is looking for a valuable object he gave to Elephant Senior for safekeeping, something the size of “a bar of soap,” but the Elephant has no clue where it’s hidden. And then there’s the Irish cop Dobbs, who wants to protect Deems and/or Sportcoat, but is also only a few months from retirement, whom nobody in the church really trusts except perhaps Sister Gee, the pastor’s wife. And besides all of that, where in heaven’s name is that cheese coming from every month?
These questions are ultimately all intertwined, as are the characters’ lives, and some answers may surprise you and others you’ll see coming a mile away. I won’t give any spoilers here, but the final impression you get of the Causeway Projects is that this is a neighborhood held together “in the palm of God’s hand,” as the motto of Five Ends Baptist Church puts it. McBride himself grew up in a South Brooklyn housing project, and his parents founded the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. So it’s no surprise that both the church and the neighborhood of this novel seem so vividly real. The fact that McBride’s father was black and his mother a Jew who converted to Christianity may be one reason that he refuses to demonize any group of characters in the book. It’s probably also significant that the action of the novel takes place in 1969—the summer of the moon landing, Woodstock, and, most importantly, the triumph of the Miracle Mets who pulled off their incredible and inexplicable World Series run that year. It takes an apparent miracle for things to work out in this novel, and McBride frames the book with a beginning dedication “For God’s people—all of ’em,” and ends it with an acknowledgement that reads “Thanks to the humble Redeemer who gives us the rain, the snow, and all the things in between.” For that time in between, it seems we are in the palm of God’s hand, so it should be no surprise that things work out for the people in the novel. All of ’em.
“After practice on lazy summer afternoons, he’d gather the kids around and tell stories about baseball players long dead, players from the
It is the late summer of 1969, in south Brooklyn, a seventy year old church deacon, drunk as usual, pulls a gun and shoots the local drug dealer. This shooting sets off a whole series of events that rock this neighborhood. Sportcoat, having no memory of this violent incident, is forced to go underground, with the help of his community. It is an absolute marvel to get lost in McBride's storytelling and he clearly knows Brooklyn, with a deep passion and understanding. He is a true master and the cast of characters, he creates here, are all wonderful, but leading the pack is Sportcoat, who is one of the great literary creations. Nice to have McBride back.
The story just takes off from there. It is difficult to pull together a seemingly mostly unrelated cast of characters, events, background, history into a set of coherent, cohesive stories and then weave those threads into a cohesive novel, but James McBride has done it with what looks like ease. All the side trips to discuss supporting characters and their pasts are just long enough, just tantalizing enough to keep your interest, add to the big picture, and not get off track and become boring or distracting.
Deacon King Kong looks at Sportcoat, the witnesses to the shooting and those affected by it, as well as the time, the place, the culture, the society, the turmoil. It’s a satisfyingly close-up look at life in the projects, and life in general, about people who have made choices in life – or who have had life make choices for them. McBride is a masterful storyteller, creating vivid characters and scenarios and a tale that is both funny and moving.
Thanks to Penguin Random House for providing an advance copy of Deacon King Kong for my reading pleasure and honest review. All opinions are my own. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and James McBride has become one of my must-read authors.
In Deacon King Kong, James McBride weaves this amazing story with all the humor, wisdom, and panache that anyone who has read his equally engaging The Good Lord Bird would expect. Taking off from Sportcoat’s singular act of defiance—which he was too drunk on King Kong, his homebrewed libation of choice, to even remember—the author expands rapidly to describe the many likely and unlikely ties that bind together the people belonging to this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religion, and multi-generational community. And, to be sure, this tale is nothing if not a celebration of community, taking both the blessings and the warts in the balance. The people of Cause Houses cannot survive without each other—although they certainly would like to try from time to time—and McBride brings out the essential humanity of the collective lives they lead and the secrets they keep for one another.
I really liked this book, which was a moving and satisfying reading experience from beginning to end. With Sportcoat (aka Deacon King Kong, for his two most prominent passions), the author has created an unforgettable protagonist for the ages. In fact, McBride does a wonderful job fleshing out all of the many, many characters—Hot Sausage, Sister Gee, The Elephant, Deems, Hettie, and Officer Potts, to name but a very few—that populate this sprawling patchwork of a story. This is a novel that is frequently funny, sometimes grim, occasionally thoughtful and philosophical, but never dull. Above all else, it is a deeply compassionate look at a group of people who never lose faith in themselves or each other, despite facing some very long odds. I can recommend this book without the slightest hesitation.
The protagonist is “Sport Coat.” He is not only a generous spirit but also a likeable harmless drunk. He’s been in the neighborhood for a long time and knows a lot about it but sometimes has trouble remembering things. For some reason that is never very clear, he decides to shoot a former baseball protégé, who now works as a drug dealer. This doesn’t go well and eventually sets off a neighborhood war for control of the drug trade in the neighborhood.
McBride includes multiple subplots that all connect in various complex ways adding some mystery to the story. There is the missing Christmas club money that Sport Coat’s deceased wife had charge of, but never told him where she kept it. He’s on the hook for the money despite not knowing just how much is missing, and of course, everyone claims to have put in more than they could have ever afforded. Then there is Jesus’ cheese that shows up like clockwork, but no one knows where it comes from. There also is a priceless statue that could bring millions if it only could be found.
McBride writes with dry humor along with colorful Black dialogue and especially giving characters wonderfully descriptive names. The characters are cartoonish. It’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad but that seems to be acceptable for a light humorous novel. Unfortunately, most of them are unrealistically obtuse. I defy anyone not to know where that priceless statue is hidden after all the clumsy hints that McBride drops along the way. This flaw also may be forgiven, but it seems unforgivable to evoke a “happy Negroes living on the plantation” feel to what is in reality a grim, brutal and dangerous existence.
An interesting view of a housing project in New York and the relationship between the blacks, Italians, and Irish. King Kong is the name given to some home made Corn liquor.
Sportcoat is an old, seemingly indestructible drunk who one day inexplicably shoots Deems, the promising young man he lovingly taught in Sunday school and coached on
And what a cast of supporting characters! Sportcoat’s dead but constantly reappearing wife Hettie and their blind son Pudgy Fingers who was left with Hettie by his mother who went away for the weekend but never returned, Sportcoat’s best friend Hot Sausage, the church ladies Sister G, Sister Paul and Bum Bum, the aforementioned Deems and his crew and the rival crew headed by Bunch and his inept muscleman Earl, a foxy but deadly female assassin named Harry Dean, Elephant’s father and his Irish friend The Governor, Botts the honest Irish cop who will fall hopefully in love with Sister G, the seven-foot Black Muslim named Soup and the only honest numbers runner in Brooklyn, The Haitian Sensation. Then there are the Colombian Red Assassin Ants, the cheeses that miraculously reappear every month and, above all, the Five Ends Church that holds a ragged but vital community in the palm of its five-fingered hand. And, no, it is not a coincidence that the churchwomen bear more than a passing resemblance to the statue hidden beneath the fresco.
The writing is memorable, especially the chapters about the Ants, Sister Paul’s storytelling of how the Venus ended up in Brooklyn and, at the end, Sportcoat’s funeral where the community comes together to recognize this flawed hero’s worth. Through flashbacks near the end of the book we see what turned Sportcoat and Hettie into the people they became but are reminded that these events do not account for everything they came to be. Told with a mixture of humor, rage and understanding, graced with mind-popping dialogue, this is above all a hopeful story of love, forgiveness and redemption through the healing power of Christ.
The plot gets twisted with Italian mafia, young stupid drug dealers, Baptist women from Five Ends, a white cop hoping to retire. Sportscoat still talks to his wife Hettie, who death by drowning in the river by the dock - mainly asking her where she did the Christmas Fund money from Five Ends - it will soon be needed.
This is a totally funny story interspersed with poignant moments of truth, faith, love, and silliness. Great read.
The latest novel from James McBride, an author I first encountered some 25 years ago when he wrote a stunningly personal and enlightening memoir entitled, The Color of Water. In that book he told the story of his family of origin and childhood spent in the New York City
In this latest book he revisits those times and places. Deacon King Kong is an elderly widower who lives in the Cause Public Housing Project. There he and his fellow residents, many of them African Americans who moved up North following the end of WW II, live, work, and persevere. Their migration resulted in a cultural change in Red Hook Brooklyn, replacing Italian and Irish civil servants who moved out to other sections of Brooklyn and the suburbs.
The year is 1969, a time of civil unrest. The Deacon and his fellow residents have built an insular community within the confines of the projects they live in. The host of characters McBride creates are memorable, touching, funny and unique. Besides the buildings and the central flagpole plaza where much of the action takes place is the Five Points Baptist Church that the Southern blacks built when they first arrived. The women of the church, sisters are depicted as the matriarchal force that keeps things going while the boys and men of the project focus more around sports, drinking and drug dealing.
On the outskirts of the projects is the larger community, therein resides Italian gangsters, pushers, smugglers, and con men. Additionally, the police who patrol the neighborhood are outsiders and control agents. It is the tension between all these different contagions that produces the suspense and action as the novel unfolds.
McBride’s writing is filled with affection and street-smart banter. In a sense he has created a Dickens-like tableau, filled with characters of both moral and ill dispute. There is a clear empathy and enjoyment with which McBride unfolds the tale and the reader easily falls in love with many of the characters depicted.
While reading the book I listened to a few interviews McBride participated in as part of the promotion. He has a melodious easy canter which is also reflected in his writing. He clearly intended this book to be a celebration of a certain time and place and people. He also filled the book with the sense of hope, love, and optimism he has for our current times. Aware of the historic racial divides in America, McBride holds out a vision in which we can all live with respect and admiration.
This is a totally enjoyable and uplifting piece of fiction.