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




Small Towns: Chesterfield, MA



The Hampshire County town of Chesterfield, Massachusetts, is an old town that was settled in 1760. Western Mass folks apply the term “hilltown” for a place like Chesterfield that’s perched above the Connecticut River Valley. It also tends to designate a place where once hardscrabble farming took place before those with commonsense stopped shifting rocks and too their plows elsewhere. You’ll see old stone walls in the area from its days of raising Merino sheep, but there are only a handful of farms in Chesterfield now. Mostly its history is reflected in the number of handsome Federal-style buildings that dot what is called Main Road, though it’s really pretty much the road and you have to know where you’re going to wander down a side byway if you’re in any kind of hurry.  




Hurry doesn’t define Chesterfield. It’s one of those places into which people move because they want to slow the pace of life. It’s a pretty close-knit community that still has a town meeting form of government but, in winter, it can be a challenging commute to places such as Northampton (14 miles), Springfield (34 miles), or Hartford (59 miles). Your cellphone probably won’t work in town and the local general store might give you some WiFi connectivity. The only guarantee is inside the town library.





Chesterfield has 1,222 people, a historical peak, but it seems like fewer as they are spread across 31 square miles. There’s a post office in the town center and a historical district on western edge, though the latter–basically an old schoolhouse–is tucked amidst some down-market homes and an abandoned building insulated by piles of garbage. But, as in the case of most hilltowns, locals like each other’s company and visitors looking for some solitude can find a few places to stay. Plan on driving for food, though, as Chesterfield has no restaurants. 




Why would anyone from the outside wish to do that? First of all, it’s a pretty place in the center–almost like what people from far away think of when they conjure an old New England town. If you’re a hiker or just like driving around backroads, you can take in some very pleasant scenery. The main attraction, though is Chesterfield Gorge, a Trustees of Reservations property. Its where the glacier sliced through a notch in the rocks through which the Westfield River rushes. Only those with a death wish would try to paddle it. The picture is from the spring. As you can see from the final photograph, in the fall after a dry summer like that of 2020, you can fill your bathtub and it will be deeper than the Westfield, as seen here a few hundred yards from the Gorge.




In normal years, though, the river further downstream offers pretty good fishing. Anyone passing through the area in spring should definitely make a detour off of Route 9, grab some coffee at the general store, and take a peek at the Gorge. Linger in town if you’re weary.


Rob Weir


John Lewis: The Kind of Good Trouble We Need

John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020)

Directed by Dawn Parker

Aspen Films, 96 minutes, PG




2020 has seen the passing of too many good people. Among them is Congressman John Lewis, who died of pancreatic cancer in July, two months before a documentary about his public life was released. John Lewis: Good Trouble tells of his courageous battles against racism and injustice over the course of his life. As one of the tags to the film sums it: thousands of protests, 45 arrests, and 33 years in Congress.


Lewis was the last remaining speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, an event best recalled for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” King’s voice was silenced by an assassin in 1968, but that of John Lewis remained steady and strong over the next 52 years. The documentary takes its title from a famed Lewis aphorism, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Director Dawn Parker presents a portrait of a man who found his calling in the civil rights movement when he was barely in his 20s. When the Freedom Riders sought volunteers, Lewis was there. When it was time to put bodies on the line to cross the Pettis Bridge into Selma, Alabama, Lewis was present. He was part of CORE, chaired SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) for four years, took part in voter registration drives, shepherded community organizing projects, and when SNCC fell under the decidedly violent sway of Stokely Carmichael, moved away from it and toward politics. In 1986, he challenged his friend Julian Bond in the primary, defeated him, and was elected to the House of Representatives. In his 17 terms, Lewis never got less than 69% of the vote in Georgia’s 5th District.


John Lewis was battle-tested, which partially explains why he seemed to have a perpetual scowl on his face. One of the joys of Parker’s documentary is that we see Lewis with his metaphorical hair down. (He went bald early on.) His serious demeanor also came from the fact that he once dreamed of being a preacher and delivered sermons to the chickens on his parents’ Troy, Alabama, farm. As we learn from the film, Lewis retained a fondness for chickens for his entire life–including collecting silly chicken figurines that clashed with the magnificent art in his elegant Atlanta home. Lewis always smiled when talking about chickens. This, and the warmth he exuded when encountering supporters, were seldom-seen sides of the late Congressman.


His serious public countenance was linked to a core belief: “Freedom isn’t a state; it’s an act.” Lewis believed in non-violence, was an optimist, and loved his nation, but he seldom hesitated to call out racists and enemies of freedom. He explained his vote to impeach Donald Trump with these words: “When you see something that’s not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, do something.” Those words defined both Lewis’ civil rights activism and his purpose for being in Congress.


Like most documentaries, there are numerous talking heads, some of whom are impressive and articulate, and some of whom are less so. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is among the well-spoken, as are Corey Booker, Nancy Pelosi, Bill Clinton, and Representative Ilhan Omar. Surprisingly, Omar comes across as more sincere than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, or Hillary Clinton, the latter three of whom clearly admired Lewis, though their remarks seemed more scripted.


Another small flaw is that the documentary often drifts toward hagiography. It is so tied to Lewis the activist and politician, that at times it feels like John Lewis’ greatest hits. Porter dug up some great archival footage, but we don’t get much of a sense of Lewis’ private life. Porter glossed Lewis’ decision to take on Julian Bond and his use of a dirty trick to do so. Bond was gracious in defeat, but confessed a rift in their relationship, which Porter mentions and drops. We also learn very little about Lewis’ marriage, other than his deep sorrow at Lillian’s passing in 2012. His musician son, John-Miles, doesn’t get much attention either.


Decisions must be made when making a biography that gives the sweep of a person’s life, hence I’m inclined to overlook the lacunae in Good Trouble. My takeaway is that Congressman Lewis was that rarest of birds in American politics: a man of conscience. Need I say that we live in a post-truth society? Or that in the age of robber baron narcissism we need more public servants driven by morality?


Rob Weir