James McBride is a national treasure. I savored his 2020 book Deacon King Kong over the last month or so, stretching out the pleasure by only reading it on my lunch breaks at work. So worth it. McBride isn’t just a talented writer, he has a gift for bridging the humorous, the heartfelt, and the political in a single page.
I’m certainly not the only one to recognize his greatness: former President Obama honored him with the 2015 National Humanities Medal for “humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.” Agreed. If I were president I’d create a national book club and kick it off with this book.
Deacon King Kong is set in 1969 Brooklyn, in The Causeway Housing projects. Deacon Cuffy Lambkin AKA Deacon King Kong AKA Sportcoat is the main character. He’s a kind man and a widower who has daily discussions with his late wife, Hettie. The talks mainly revolve around their church’s missing Christmas funds. Hettie was the caretaker of the money and Sportcoat can’t find it, much to the dismay of the Five Points Baptist Church family.
Hettie was a fine woman who met her end in the Hudson River in 1967. No one knows why she drowned herself. Her body was recovered by the Elephant (Thomas G. “Tommy” Elefante) who owns a trucking and storage company run out of a box car on the water. The Elephant and Sportcoat’s lives are connected by more than just Hettie’s death. Connections abound throughout this book and it’s fun to see how McBride ties them all together.
Sportcoat may be half drunk most of the time but he’s a responsible fellow. He holds down several odd jobs, his favorite being a gardener for the Elephant’s elderly mother. They’re both gifted with plants and they tramp around the neighborhood together, hunting pokeweed, fiddlehead, and skunk cabbage in the vacant lots and on the shoreline.
Sportcoat is good friends with Hot Sausage, the Cause’s janitor. They hang out in the boiler room, talking and sipping. Sometimes it’s a bottle Sportcoat borrowed from his job at the liquor store, other times it’s King Kong, the homemade white lightning made by Rufus, the janitor from the nearby Watch Houses.
Sportcoat used to coach and referee the Cause’s baseball team – when they had one before the drugs moved in. His pride and joy was a boy with a killer arm, Deems Clemens, but he turned into an unfulfilled promise. At 19 Deems is now the main dealer doing business with his crew right out in front of the Cause.
The story opens when Sportcoat inexplicably shoots Deems. Lucky for both it wasn’t a mortal wound, but the action sets the stage for the main storyline and one of the mysteries: why’d he do it?
Can we take a minute to talk about the glorious names McBride gave his characters?
In addition to Sportcoat and Hot Sausage there’s Pudgy Fingers, Bum-Bum, the Cousins: Nanette and Sweet Corn, Soup Lopez, Sister Bibb, Dominic Lefleur the Haitian Sensation, and Miss Izi, the leader of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses. Pure perfection.
And then there’s Sister Veronica Gee and Sergeant “Potts” Mullen. Their scenes together are otherworldly, like in West Side Story when Tony and Maria meet at the dance and everything gets fuzzy around them because they’re so into each other. Sister Gee lives in the Cause and cleans for a living. Potts is a cop, close to retirement. “Me and you has got the same job, in a way. We clean dirt. We both clean up after people,” Sister Gee observes when they first meet.
Their meeting in Chapter 9 is where the book takes a turn. The novel starts out free-wheeling and comical and then BAM it’s something else entirely. First Sister Gee notices “something about him that glistened, something warm that churned and billowed about, like a smoke cloud filled with sparklers.” The it’s Potts’ turn, when she “leaned back and placed a slender brown arm on the top edge of the pew, the small movement graceful and supple…He suddenly found himself unable to think clearly.”
Mind you, Potts is a 60-something Irish cop with a paunch and Gee is a 50-something minister’s wife. Potts is there investigating the shooting but he “finds himself wanting to tell her every sorrow he ever knew,” and she suddenly feels “her heart flutter.” Her face renders him “momentarily helpless…as if a bird’s wing had suddenly brushed his face…” It’s crazy, this thing between them and lucky for us readers they cross paths again and again.
Back to the stories. There’s so many branches, all twined together. Like the mysterious cheese that shows up at the Cause every month. Not government cheese, but real “fresh, rich, heavenly, succulent, soft, creamy, kiss-my-ass, cows-gotta-die-for-this, delightfully salty, moo-ass, good old white folks cheese…” Needless to say the cheese is a hit with the residents of the Cause, and the ants like it too…
The ants are part of a scene with Deems when he’s in the hospital, still a little woozy from the gunshot, talking with a couple of his boys. They want to discuss business but Deems wants to talk about the ants. He’s remembering a time when they were younger and not in the life yet; not carefree but still youthful. They used to follow the ants and watch as they marched into the building and down to the cheese.
Deems is reminiscing, deep into his feelings and once again, in this scene the novel shifts a little. Suddenly it’s a glimpse at the child Deems once was, a boy with more innocent thoughts and dreams. This is when McBride reminded me of George Pelecanos, which is a high compliment. They’re both so skilled at revealing inner humanity, especially in young men caught up in hard lives.
Deacon King Kong both meanders and moves forward quickly, which isn’t easy to accomplish. McBride weaves storylines, mysteries and relationships together with ease. Like the Elephant, his late father Guido, the Governor, and the treasure. The treasure is an ancient artifact acquired by the Governor during WWII. Later on Guido and the Governor were cellmates and when Guido got released first he kept it safe. Now the Governor wants it back, he intends on selling to a collector and will pay the Elephant a very nice sum in return. But where is it?
I searched for McBride and learned he was born to a Black / Jewish family. He wrote a memoir called The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother which I remember my mom recommending to me many years ago. Mom was born in Puerto Rico, came to New York when she was 18, and married a Jewish New Yorker so now I get it. Needless to say, I’ll be reading it soon.
Loyalty, love, redemption and second chances are the themes that build the framework for this brilliant novel. It’s a laugh-out-loud book full of comic scenes but with a solid backbone of truth and reality about America. And as a bonus, the put-downs and insults the characters throw around are epic and will have you giggling maniacally (and filing some away for future use). Like when someone says something to you that makes you wonder if they’ve lost their mind, you can shake your head and say “your cheese done slid off your cracker.” That just cracked me up.
The comic caper scenes in Deacon King Kong remind me of another favorite author, the late great Donald E. Westlake. He wrote a series about a good hearted but bumbling team of thieves in New York and I think he would have liked McBride, too, for his humor and humanity.
Not gonna lie, the ending made me tear up. I adored Deacon King Kong and I want you to try it. Read it for the stories, the writing, the rhythm, and the pacing. Read it for the people of the Cause and Five Points Baptist Church. Read it for it’s heart and soul and let it leave it’s mark on yours.