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Review: Deacon King Kong, by James McBride
Riverhead, 2020. 370 pp. $28

Few people even know his real name, because he never uses it. Even the police confuse him with someone else, because he shares a driver’s license with another man, which makes his official record almost untraceable. But to the residence of the Causeway Housing Projects (the Cause) in south Brooklyn, he’s Sportcoat, because of the colorful assortment he wears of that garment.

His finest moment came umpiring the Cause baseball team, now disbanded. These days, the former deacon of Five Ends Baptist Church spends his time high on King Kong, the popular name for a friend’s moonshine, and talks to his late wife, Hettie. Or thinks he does, and nobody can persuade him otherwise.

Except that in summer 1969, Sportcoat shoots Deems, a teenage kingpin of the Cause drug traffic, and his former baseball protégé, at point-blank range. Sportcoat claims not to have understood what he was doing, but nobody believes that, least of all, the police. But he’s the type of character who doesn’t care what anybody thinks, alternately perplexing, amusing, and horrifying everyone else.

From that shooting springs a complicated, finely woven story, involving Five Ends, cheese deliveries, storytelling as an art form, the racism that warps life in the projects, unlikely romances, what constitutes good in the face of so much evil, and how humans dare to hope.

A portion of the Red Hook Houses project, south Brooklyn, as it appeared in 2012 at Lorraine and Henry Streets (courtesy Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But I’d be doing Deacon King Kong a disservice if I failed to mention what a rollicking good time the novel is. Pick almost any paragraph, and you’ll find sprawling, delicious sentences like these, oozing with spicy flavor:

Meanwhile Sister Bibb, the voluptuous church organist, who at fifty-five years old was thick-bodied, smooth and brown as a chocolate candy bar, arrived in terrible shape. She was coming off her once-a-year sin jamboree, an all-night, two-fisted, booze-guzzling, swig-faced affair of delicious tongue-in-groove licking and love-smacking with her sometimes boyfriend, Hot Sausage, until Sausage withdrew from the festivities for lack of endurance.

And for those who appreciate snappy dialogue, look no further. What in the Sixties we used to call “rank-outs” or “snaps” appear here in a poetic form guaranteed to prompt laughter. For instance: “But that idiot’s so dumb he lights up a room by leaving it.” Or: “Son, you looks like a character witness for a nightmare.” McBride has a superb ear and inventive pen, which makes the narrative a delightful ride.

For the first two chapters, McBride even goes a little too far, I think, unraveling so many stories within stories, and with such far-ranging flights of verbal fancy, that I worried. I thought reading Deacon King Kong would be like eating an entire tub of caramel pecan ice cream in a half-hour, past my limit. But the narrative settles down somewhat, to the extent that it does, and McBride’s storytelling skills come to the fore.

Every spoonful matters, as details you might have glossed over come back to play important roles. Characters cross paths in natural yet unexpected ways, and points of view transition gracefully from one to other. Sportcoat moves through the novel oblivious to the effect he has on others, the ultimate catalyst — and denies it, if anyone should point it out to him.

Two key themes emerge. One involves how white interpretations of Black life rest on lies that Black people need not — must not — accept, even if they can do nothing else to fulfill themselves. Dignity requires insisting on the truth. Within that, a person finds meaning and hope by taking small actions, even though they won’t change the big picture. That’s all anyone can do.

As historical fiction, the novel gets down to neighborhood level, as in how the influx or departure of certain groups changes the Cause, how the police or certain agencies function differently from the past, or how drugs have taken over, and the horrific damage that follows. That’s what 1969 means here, aside from frequent references to the New York Mets. And though I yield to no one in my love for that team, I do wish McBride had gone a little further. In particular, I’d have liked to hear more about the Vietnam War, for instance, because maybe residents of the Cause had strong feelings about fighting the white man’s war in Southeast Asia.

But Deacon King Kong is a terrific book and a testament to the author’s range and vision.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, a bookseller that shares its receipts with independent bookstores.