Deacon King Kong is Hysterical, Yet Sad


Deacon King Kong (2020)

By James McBride

Riverhead, 384 pages





Deacon King Kong is a very funny yet dark novel that is certainly one of the year’s best thus far. It is set in Brooklyn during 1969, the year the Mets surprisingly won the World Series. That’s about the only thing New Yorkers could celebrate that year. New York in the late 1960s and into the late ‘70s was a version of Dante’s Inferno–a teeming cauldron of social problems ranging from garbage strikes and decaying ghettos to muggings and riots.


Not that the black, Latino, and Italian residents of the Five Ends of Brooklyn noticed. Its odd name derived from its natural boundaries plus a painting of Jesus painted on the back of a church that was once Italian and Catholic but became African American and Baptist. At some point, Jesus was repainted as a black man but whoever did it made a shambles of it. No matter, Five Ends is a close-knit community where folks roll with whatever life throws at them. It is populated by a colorful cast of characters–many of them originally from Possum Point, SC–with nicknames like Beanie, Dome, Stick, Lightbulb, Bun-Bum, Moon, and Elephant. Those handles are so prominent that only a few actually know that “Sportcoat” was born Cuffy Lambkin, or that “Sausage” is Thelonious Ellis and not even the motor vehicle office is aware of  that, because Sportcoat borrowed Sausage’s ID to get his license and he, in turn, used the name Ralph Odum to get his. If anyone knows, it’s Sister Gee, who is married to neighborhood pastor and is the mother hen of the Five Ends’ barnyard.


Everyone, it seems, has a racket, whether it’s as harmless as numbers running or as destructive as selling drugs. If you recall Spike Lee movies where folks sit on steps and chuck and jive, that’s Five Ends. There’s little they won’t lampoon, but they know what’s their business and what isn’t. Except for Sportcoat, who is a deacon of the church, though he has little idea what that means other than occasionally doing minor caretaking. He’s decidedly a few marbles short of a full bag, courtesy of “King Kong,” the name he and his friends give to the moonshine they consume. Outwardly, Sportcoat is a happy-go-lucky alcoholic, but he’s also grieving and stuck in time. He once coached and umped baseball, and he tells everyone he intends to revive the local team and steer Deems Clemens into the majors. Never mind that Deems is now a drug dealer, or that Sportcoat shot off part of his ear. Sportcoat doesn’t remember any of that, so he’s not about to go into hiding. After all, he has to help an elderly Italian woman with her garden, another of his odd jobs. (He can’t remember her name, so her calls her Miss Four Pie for the treats he feeds him.)


Five Ends is bred for drama and Deacon King Kong has a lot going on. An Irish cop who has returned to his old neighbor tries to warn Five Enders that things are changing in dangerous ways but he’s just old “Potts” Mullen to them, and it’s doubtful many know his first name is actually Harris. Those who give him a second thought notice he seems to be sweet on Sister Gee and nuts about external dangers. They’re right about the first, but wrong about the second; the old days in which Italian gangs smuggled hot goods are giving way to battling crime syndicates and the heroin trade.


Deacon King Kong is that rare book that’s both poignant and laugh-out-loud hysterical. There is, for instance, the free “Jesus cheese” that mysteriously shows up once a year at the church, a man known as the Haitian Sensation who might not be Haitian, and Soup Lopez who became a Muslim in jail, but still helps Pastor Gee. Sportcoat is such a colorful individual that we both wish him to be rescued but hope he never changes. His rambling speeches are a cross between the surrealism of George Carlin and a Richard Pryor rant. Another deft touch is that McBride shows us a neighborhood in transition that will probably also shed a lot of its interracial skin. In 1969, it’s still one in which Italians stick with their own but treat African Americans with respect, one in which an Irish cop can admit his attraction for a black woman, and one in which a middle-aged fence and bachelor wants to chuck crime to marry a plump Italian gal and help her run her bagel shop!


Deacon King Kong is ultimately about community building, intersecting lives, and colliding worldviews. There’s even a little mystery tale woven into McBride’s storytelling. It would be nice if Five Ends paralleled the Miracle Mets, but McBride is too savvy for saccharine resolutions. Instead, he gives us a slice in time that’s both sweet and bitter.   


Rob Weir



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