Title/Author: Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Publisher: Riverhead Books
In a nutshell (Publisher):
From the author of the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird and the bestselling modern classic The Color of Water, comes one of the most celebrated novels of the year.
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 .38 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.
My verdict: Hilarious, full of heart and unputdownable. Definitely love at first read!
‘”What kind of business you got in this hospital, Sport? They make your grape here? Your King Kong? You and your drink. Deacon King Kong,” he snickered.”‘Deems, Deacon King Kong, pg 318
This book. Wow. If only I could just cut and paste the entire book here to show everyone how fantastic it is. Firstly, the characters – I fell in love with them right from the start, and how could you not when they had nicknames like Sportcoat (the main character, also known as Deacon King Kong by some), Bum Bum, Hot Sausage, Soup and the Elephant!
And its purposeful, rhythmic writing – some parts were long but it was done so skillfully, I enjoyed reading it! Here’s an example of one of my many favorites:
‘”And still New York blamed you for all its problems. And who can you blame? You were the one who chose to live here, in this hard town with its hard people, the financial capital of the world, land of opportunity for the white man and a tundra of spent dreams and empty promises for anyone else stupid enough to believe the hype. Sister Gee stared at her neighbors as they surrounded her, and at that moment she saw them as she had never seen them before: they were crumbs, thimbles, flecks of sugar powder on a cookie, invisible, sporadic dots on the grid of promise, occasionally appearing on Broadway stages or on baseball teams with slogans like “You gotta believe,” when in fact there was nothing to believe but that one colored in the room is fine, two is twenty, and three means close up shop and everybody go home; all living the New York dream in the Cause Houses, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, a gigantic copper reminder that this city was a grinding factory that diced the poor man’s dreams worse than any cotton gin or sugarcane field from the old country. And now heroin was here to make their children slaves again, to a useless white powder.'”Sister Gee in Deacon King Kong
Now, let’s get to the story. 1969. Causeway Housing Projects (or just known as the Cause) in south Brooklyn, New York. Sportcoat just shot Deems, a young drug dealer, also a promising baseball player, trained by Sportcoat himself. And that made Sportcoat a wanted man of the police and the mob.
There were many witnesses to the shooting, all of whom were friends of Sportcoat’s, and none were telling the police about his whereabouts after the shooting. It wasn’t that Sportcoat was hiding, he was just ‘good at making himself scarce’ according to Potts, the Irish police officer assigned to the case. Even Earl, the hit man sent by the mob to hurt Sportcoat, couldn’t get hold of him.
As if that weren’t enough, the parishioners of the Five Ends Baptist Church were in search for their ‘Christmas Club’ money, which responsibility fell on Sportcoat since his deceased beloved wife, Hettie, was the treasurer. So as it was, Sportcoat was in high demand.
In the midst of all that, a drug war was brewing in the projects between Joe Peck, Deems and Bunch, all fighting for a bigger piece of the pie. There was also The Governor who was trying to get the Elephant, an Italian American gangster, to help find his precious ‘bar of soap’ which was believed to fetch a really high price. And Elephant, who was a little reluctant to help at first, changed his mind when the Governor’s daughter caught his eye.
This sudden hullabaloo, in what was previously an undisturbed, ‘quiet’ part of the area, must have awakened Cupid, whose arrow struck Potts and Sister Gee, who ‘undid the bow that wrapped his heart’. The Elephant and Melissa, the Governor’s daughter, weren’t spared of Cupid’s arrow either. Each of them needing the other more than they realized.
This book had so many hilarious scenes and conversations in it. The scenes of Earl trying to get hold of Sportcoat were uproariously funny! Then the part where Sportcoat was trying to resuscitate Deems, which, to witnesses nearby, looked like he was humping Deems!
There were also the witty banter between Sister Gee and Potts about their names, Hot Sausage and Sportcoat at the broiler room, and the almost one-sided ‘conversation’ between Governor and Earl’s ‘dig thaaaat’, just to name some.
Not to mention also the relationship between Sister Bibb and Hot Sausage was one to remember, for sure! Even just thinking back now is tickling my funny bones again! My daughter who’s sitting next to me, noticed me giggling asked ‘What’s so funny, mommy?’ LOL
One can easily fall in love with the story as much as for its colorful cast, both in skin and personality, which was to me, the heart of it all. I loved ALL OF THEM. From Sportcoat, a sensitive and an affable drunk; his buddy, the ever loyal Hot Sausage; the beauty with brains Sister Gee; Potts a humble, kindhearted soul, to Deems, a confused, smart, talented baseball player, and Sister Paul, a sassy 102 year-old woman with a man’s name, who was an original founder of the Five Ends Baptist Church. They all, after the many unexpected twists and turns, brought the story to a full circle. Just one more thing though, the women here, were not to be messed with!
This book, to borrow a line from it, if I may, is, a story ‘full of lyric and rhyme and hope and laughter and joy and pain…’. And beneath all its wit and humor, beneath all the ugly truths about race and class (especially in The March of the Ants, one of my favorite chapters) is a poignant story of community and humanity, love and kinship. It just showed that no matter our race and status, lay our desire to live a life with purpose, to be significant, to leave our mark, to love and to be loved.
Lastly, my question to you is this, what are you still doing here? Go get the book now and read it! 🙂
A side note: Sister, the global content company co-founded by Elisabeth Murdoch, Stacey Snider and Jane Featherstone, has won the rights to Deacon King Kong to develop as a television series. Full story here.
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to read it? Please share with me your thoughts!