James McBride won the National Book Award for his book The Good Lord Bird, and his newest novel Deacon King Kong is a contender as well. Deacon King Kong may read as a farce, but buried in McBride’s humor and hilarity is a book about grace and second chances.
In September of 1969, Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, more commonly known as Sportcoat walked into the courtyard of the Causeway Housing Project and shot the ear off of the neighborhood’s notorious drug dealer, Deems Clemens. At the daily coffee gathering, members of the Five Ends Baptist Church speculated wildly about why he did it. Some thought it was because he’d recently lost his wife Hettie, who drowned in the harbor, others thought he was under an evil mojo spell. Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Cooking Sensation had seen everything from his bathroom window and declared, “I always knew old Sportcoat would do one great thing in life.” Sportcoat himself didn’t remember the crime, likely because he’d been enjoying his friend Rufus’s homemade moonshine, King Kong, a little too often since Hettie’s death. His friends and fellow congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church were more concerned for Sportcoat’s safety than he was – he was consumed with trying to find the Christmas Fund, which Hettie was in charge of and had neglected to tell anyone where she kept it before she died. Besides, Sportcoat had coached Deems, who was the best pitcher the Cause Houses ever had before he got involved in the drug business and Sportcoat was determined to get Deems back in the game.
McBride is a wordsmith, his sentences at times spool out over half the page and vibrantly color the world he’s created for us – like this one, where he describes the disparity between the black and white worlds of New York and the people who live in the Cause Houses:
. . . where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich – West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious – and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.”
The Causeway Housing Project in South Brooklyn was an equal opportunity employer and the Italian mob runs parallel to Deems drug trade. Elefante, aka the Elephant, who’d inherited the black market business from his father, tried to mind his own business, but he was in search of some missing treasure of his own.
McBride shows deep affection for his characters – whether they be the Latinx or African American residents, the congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church, the Italian mob, the cops investigating the crime, or King Kong- addled Sportcoat – under McBride’s watchful eye, they are all redeemable.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Read all of my reviews and listen to my author interviews on www.superiorreads.blog and on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais and on the web at https://www.wtip.org/superior-reads-0