“Deacon King Kong”; By James McBride; 2020, Riverhead Books; 270 pages.
In devouring every delightful sentence or poignant passage in “Deacon King Kong” it is impossible to believe that author James McBride didn’t have a grand time writing each and every word. That’s how much fun it is to visit this slice of south Brooklyn life in 1969, a time of imminent change for this vibrant collection of characters McBride has assembled in his new novel.
McBride conjures a literary festival of unique, often hilarious, sometimes sad but completely believable occupants and passersby of a neighborhood in cultural, demographic, economic and political transition. It’s a place full of older church-goers mixed with young people trying to find a way to somewhere, anywhere else. The neighborhood is teeming with choir singers, church deacons, preachers, drunks, drug dealers, Italian gangsters, fallen athletes, harbor smugglers, Jewish liquor store owners and weary beat cops. All have rich stories to tell. Most have bigger hearts than heads. And more than a few are running away from something while lurching uncertainly, even randomly, toward something else. And despite the seeming helplessness around them, there’s hope, love and no small amount of redemption.
McBride, a National Book Award winner for his epic historical romp, “The Good Lord Bird,” is clearly a storyteller at the very top of his game. The best novelists are obviously great writers first and foremost. McBride certainly fits that bill. But his true greatness lies in an uncanny ability to see everyday life and record it with humor, honesty and empathy. He’s a lifelong observer of people with an accurate ear for language and the powers of perception to take a patchwork quilt of ideas and characters and create a textured, connected whole.
In “Deacon King Kong” McBride creates a circus of street life, mistaken identities, hidden treasure, faith, longing, love, baseball, Jesus cheese, hungry ants, a mangled church mural and large amount of homemade liquor. It all adds up to one splendid surprise after another.
McBride begins this tale where other stories might end — with a shooting. For reasons that unfold over 270 tight pages — and that’s not giving away much at all — 71-year-old Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, known to his friends in Five Ends Baptist Church and dwellers in the Causeway Housing Projects as “Sportcoat” takes an old .38 pistol and shoots 19-year-old would-be drug kingpin Deems Clemens. Sportcoat, recognized as the peaceful and well-liked town drunk of the projects, merely wounds Clemens, the most “ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen.”
Why does old Sportcoat do it? Even he doesn’t recall actually pulling the trigger in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses who have known him for years, including the victim himself. After the shooting, Sportcoat continues on his way, staggering from one part-time odd job to another — the liquor store, the church and tending plants for the mother of a notorious Italian gangster who smuggles goods from the nearby harbor. In-between he stops to see his friend Hot Sausage so they can share a few drinks of his homemade hootch, called “King Kong.” All the while Sportcoat carries on a running conversation and argument with his dead wife, Hettie.
While the question of why Sportcoat shoots Deems Clemens becomes more clear over time, it is a secondary concern. The shooting itself sets off a twisting chain of events that involves the entire south Brooklyn neighborhood, a rival drug operation in another neighborhood, a melancholy and lovelorn cop near retirement and one bungled caper after another.
The Miracle New York Mets World Series champion baseball team of 1969 is symbolic of the rapid changes that are impacting not only south Brooklyn, but the nation. Everyone in “Deacon King Kong” is in some transformational stage. How each comes to grips with finding new love, careers, success, faith or redemption is a testament to the human spirit and the ability to quietly evolve and endure.
McBride populates this narrative with not just quirky characters — although they are most certainly that — but recognizable, likeable and deeply flawed people often defined by circumstances beyond their control who still have abundant hope. Ultimately “Deacon King Kong” is about people longing for something that isn’t always easily defined but their understanding that change is part of the equation.