Deacon King Kong – James McBride

Deacon King Kong is a funny, tragic, sweet, ugly, pulls no punches but finds good in the world around every corner book. It is McBride’s meticulous attention to the humanity, humor, danger, ambivalence and values (good and bad) of every single character that fills Deacon King Kong with heart and humor. Because, while its subjects are a small black church, a sprawling public housing complex, an old neighborhood of deteriorating brownstones once occupied by only Italians, organized crime actors playing big time to small time roles, the New York Harbor, New York public servants in general and the police in particular, the individual people form the bricks and mortar of Deacon King Kong.

There are numerous players, but one dominates. He’s a 79 year old man called “Sportcoat.” As a child, he was “cursed” with illnesses and one of the many healers his mother used, after casting her spells, told his mother not to call him by his given name for a period of time. So she called him Sportcoat. He grew up in South Carolina, falling in love with Hettie, who moved north to New York City as a young woman, with plans Sportcoat would join her. She imagined him using his green thumb to grow moonflowers and work with the earth, but Sportcoat transplanted to Brooklyn was a disappointment to her, though they loved each other. When he joined her at the “Cause” Housing Projects, he took to heavily drinking homemade moonshine called King Kong and worked odd menial odd jobs, only one related to gardening. That one was for a woman Sportcoat called Mrs. Four Pies, an Italian woman who had just baked four pies the day he started gardening for her. He wasn’t sure of her real name. Hettie, a churchwoman, kept their little family going, including their “son” Pudgy Fingers. Sportcoat is a Deacon in the church Hettie helped to found, “Five Ends,” right by the edge of their complex and the center of life for a diminishing congregation. Its oldest member, 106 year old Sister John, hasn’t been to the church in years, but tithes $4.13 a week, sending it faithfully from the “old folks home” where she settled.

It is 1969. Hettie walked into the harbor and died two years ago. Then and now, Sportcoat is drunk all the time. He talks to, and argues with, the deceased Hetty, who failed to let him know where the Five Ends Christmas money box was hidden. People donated all year long so they would have money to buy presents for family and Hetty died without distributing their money. Sportcoat worries about this, about where he’ll get his next bottle of King Kong, and about baseball. It has been some years since he was the umpire for the Cause baseball team and their competitive games with the nearby projects, “the Watch.” Sportcoat had a star pitcher, Deems, but now Deems is selling drugs at the flagpole plaza each day, starting his work day as soon as the seniors, who gather there, in the morning depart. Deems could have gone far. He had a college scholarship and he ditched it all for a life of crime. His suppliers are part of organized crime. McBride does an amazing job imagining the conversations Deems handlers have about the shooting, the machinations among factions of the criminal element and the levels of criminal behavior the various players are willing or quite interested in engaging in.

As the story begins, we quickly learn that Sportcoat walked up the Deems, chewed him out about baseball and shot him, but Sportcoat doesn’t remember this. Not only are the police involved, but Deems is successful as a dealer and his suppliers are unhappy. So Earl is sent to mess Sportcoat up and teach him a lesson. At this point, there is a three stooges feel to Deacon King Kong, as Sportcoat repeatedly evades discovery or harm while refusing to flee to a safer place. People are betting on his date of death. His friends are begging him to take this seriously and he obviously thinks he is teflon because he was Deems’ Sunday school teacher and coach. Various subplots commence as one wonderfully drawn character after another is drawn into the story.

We meet a huge variety of people, each engaging: Hot Sausage, Sportcoat’s best friend, is the Cause custodian, who distributes the mysteriously sourced hunks of good cheese that arrives monthly, controls the annual invasion of mysterious ants and works on the decrepit old generator necessary to feed electricity to numerous tenants. Rufus, maker of King Kong and custodian at the Watch hails from Sportcoat’s home town and he is responsible for an identical generator. Mrs. G, wife of Five End’s minister keeps everything running like clockwork for her incompetent and disinterested husband and falls a little bit in love with the Irish police officer who’s looking for Sportcoat, partly to warn him he’s a target and partly to arrest him for shooting Deems. We see a Latina wife whose husband left her for a man in Alaska; two cousins in the Five Ends choir who fell out years ago and express their hate for one another by each trying to be the loudest singer, bringing powerful emotional spirit to the congregation; Pudgy Fingers, Sportcoat’s and Hetty’s son who is a childlike adult, loved by all; the Elephant, son of the deceased Guido Elephanti, a small time organized crime guy who made a promise in jail to his Irish friend, “The Governor” that the Elephant now has to keep; and on and on. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows everybody’s business– except that some people keep secrets. And each person is a fully realized human with a backstory and values developed in the context of their upbringing and their surroundings.

I selected this book as one to listen to on Audible because I really like James McBride’s writing and he won the 2021 Carnegie Medal for fiction for Deacon King Kong. I am so glad I listened to it as the audiobook was very well narrated with accents and speaking styles appropriate to all. I highly recommend this whether you prefer to read or listen to it. I did not want it to end. I could read about these people forever. Alas, as that is not possible, McBride was kind enough to wrap up every subplot neatly and left me satisfied.

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