Reading Through the Awards: Deacon King Kong, by James McBride

February 18, 2021

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, recent winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in fiction, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “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.”

James McBride’s Deacon King Kong is the story of a Brooklyn deacon who, one September day in 1969, shoots the Cause Houses’ local drug dealer. From there, everything spirals out. The witnesses wonder why part-time deacon, full-time alcoholic, and usually harmless “Sportcoat” would do such a thing. His friends wonder if the man actually realizes what he’s done. Even the mover for the local Italian mafia hears about it in passing. As the novel unwinds, following each thread of the people affected by Sportcoat’s actions, it becomes clear that nothing that happens in this community is ever an isolated, random incident. Everything is connected, from the deacon to the church ladies, cheese, long-dead mafia men and their promises, Jesus, baseball, and the church’s missing Christmas box.

Each character has a story, a history, a nickname, and each character gets time devoted to fleshing them out. We learn how Deems, the drug-dealer shot in the opening pages of the novel, left his talent at baseball behind after the death of his grandfather. We learn how Hettie, Sportcoat’s deceased wife, was found in the river and the impact her death has left not just on Sportcoat, but the community itself. We learn with Elephante, the feared mover for the Italian mafia, about his deceased father’s role in building a community that keeps them both tied there, despite neither really interacting with its residents. McBride does not just write their stories, he writes this world. He writes how years of history—of exploitation, of injustices, of triumphs, of tragedies, of built-up heartache—has always been leading to the moment a deacon shoots a drug dealer. McBride’s greatest triumph is his ability to weave all of these threads back together and make every word full of history, personality, humor, and heart.

Rebecca Calloway

Sometimes it can feel like humor doesn’t have a place in literary fiction, but James McBride has proven that it can in Deacon King Kong. Whether it’s a hitman’s attempt gone wrong or an old church Sister giving a lecture to a gangster, the funny moments don’t lessen McBride’s excellent writing style or plots. The book is written with wit and ease, as if the reader is new to the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, and the narrator is filling them in on the latest goings-on. That kind of storytelling gives the reader a chance to appreciate the world that McBride has built in the Causeway and then piece together how the many different plots—Jesus Cheese, a drug dealer’s baseball career, a statue of a fat girl, etc.—all tie together like a perfect present in this entertaining and hopeful story.

The respect McBride has for his characters is felt as each one is given an insightful background that allows them to be dimensional whether or not they’re deeply involved in a plotline. The descriptions are carefully written with light humor, but there are also moments where that comedic veil is pulled back to show the heartbreaking disappointments they’ve dealt with, but forge on despite them. The most satisfying and poignant of these character developments is of the main character Deacon as he struggles with his past and so desperately tries to block it out with alcohol and a happy-go-lucky attitude. The best part of Deacon King Kong though is the realistic interweaving of these characters inside the Causeway community. Maybe they’re separated by their building numbers, ethnicities or religions, but it’s their community and they’re trying to be there for each other despite all the bad around them.

Melanie Spicer

Suspense and humor collide fairly frequently within this work. An early example concerns the mystery of the cheese in the basement of Building 17, with residents of the Cause Houses trying to sniff out their cheese benefactor until most accept the unusual occurrence as a perk of their modest and poverty-stricken lives. Other examples of humor and suspense can be found within the characters themselves, such as Sportcoat. His amusing arguments with his dead wife, Hettie, invoke a mental instability that eventually leads to him shooting a local drug dealer, Deems.

This unexpected event is what launches the novel’s trajectory. The reader follows through the various circumstances of the people who live in and near the Cause Houses, a project formed out of New York City’s Public housing. The gripping and somewhat comical way that Earl, Mr. Bunch’s right-hand man, attempts to harm Sportcoat also propels and maintains this suspenseful humor. However, the reader soon realizes that this mixture of emotions is intended to contrast, and in some cases hide, the genuine strife McBride’s work represents. We see the blacks, browns, and whites of New York all struggling together by the Elephant’s mournful docks. We see them singing together and fighting and loving and understanding in moments that happen either simultaneously or in quick succession.

We even see people acting as outcasts within their own communities, like the Elephant, since he refuses to deal and move heroin for the Gorvino family. James McBride’s Deacon King Kong ultimately gives us a perfect birds-eye view into a world that we are still living in. There are divisions and differences of opinion, yes, but there is also unity when people can come together under dire and distressing circumstances. The fact that Sister Paul and the Elephant’s father became such excellent friends at the beginning of Five Ends’ construction glues the entire narrative together. Their lifelong camaraderie helps build even better and stronger alliances down the road, giving strength to many. This novel is about hope for the future—something that is desperately sought and needed even after we all die.

S. N. Valadez

What starts off as a seeming act of defiance from a righteous deacon against a neighborhood-rotting drug dealer unravels into an intricate tale of flawed yet deeply sympathetic people—not living against each other, but living in and around each other in a complex tapestry of community.  Sportcoat, Hot Sausage, The Elephant, Lightbulb, Pudgy Fingers—nicknames that overshadow the real names of James McBride’s characters, set the foundations for a modern day urban legend.

And behind every legend, there is usually a lesson to be learned, or a virtue to be exalted. In Deacon King Kong, there is a powerful lesson about the unknowns of life, about how one can never truly understand a neighbor, and how connection and love can form despite that. Humanity is highlighted in every chapter, adding layers of complexity to characters (both seemingly innocent, and seemingly guilty) without moralizing or dismissing the objectivity of their actions.

There is a striking fracture in communication throughout—a disconnect between thought and moment—highlighting that near impossibility of complete understanding. Sportcoat’s mind is stuck on his wife’s hidden Christmas Club money when he’s confronted at work about shooting Deems. Deems keeps asking about the ants when Lightbulb tries to impress upon him that things are turning sour with Earl. Sportcoat tries to impart a great lesson to Deems while choking him under a pillow.

Sportcoat both personifies this disconnect through his actions, and becomes the unifying force at the end of the novel. Through him, McBride writes one of the most gentle and humane depictions of slipping into delusion and deterioration. It’s done so subtly that it almost feels like a perfectly natural descent.

From the first line of the book, McBride presents the inevitable death of the titular character. And from the first page onward the reader is totally invested in seeing this character cheat inevitability, if for no other reason than to turn the next page and uncover the unknowns of life with him.

Allene Keshishian

One of the experiences I miss the most right now, in these isolated pandemic times, is the way it felt to sit in a crowded theater and feel completely immersed in the world unspooling in front of me. I remember watching August Wilson’s Fences on a field trip during my senior year of high school, and the entire time feeling confronted with a realization that I would come to be reminded of again and again: that the world is far bigger than my own lived experience, and the paths that other people follow are as complicated as they are connected. I was moved not just by the realities of the African American experience portrayed in the play, but by the lyricism of the play’s language, the role of baseball as a way of escaping the systemic barriers of the world around them, and the slices of other lives made tangible. Similarly, reading Deacon King Kong by James McBride was a lesson in immersion and world-building. Even though I could not feel the murmur of Sportcoat and Hot Sausage’s conversations in the boiler room, and even though I could not see Five Ends Church and its poorly painted rendering of a Black Jesus, the lyricism of McBride’s prose, and each character’s idiosyncrasies, and the neatness with which the plot ebbs and flows throughout the novel like the ever-present harbor—it brought me somewhere else. I was dropped in the middle of the Cause Houses, a community on the precipice of change in 1969 New York, and I heard every word of it.

Deacon King Kong is about the reverberations of a shooting in a Brooklyn housing project and the unexpected ways in which the characters’ lives intersect. But it’s also about the complexity of humanity: a mobster and an old cop who want to be loved, a young drug dealer who wants to be understood, and a beloved alcoholic deacon who just wants to do right by his dearly departed wife. Each of the principal characters in the novel is grounded by a quiet undercurrent of rage—at themselves, at others, or at the way their lives have gone—but McBride ultimately rounds out their humanity with acts of goodness and redemption. The end result is a story that is as fun and hilarious as it is earnest and heartfelt. Deacon King Kong is timeless. But the act of reading it, of following its tightly woven strands and falling into Sportcoat’s world, felt like necessary escapism right now—a reminder that humanity is not black and white, and that kindness and trust fit together in the palm of your hand.

Rebecca Paredes

Curated by Brandon Williams



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