Deacon King Kong by James McBride (Riverhead Books 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
During such turbulent times, it is important to have a sense of humor. The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy has never been as eloquent as in James McBride’s latest novel, Deacon King Kong. McBride’s follow up to his National Book Award winning The Good Lord Bird draws on the same wit and humor as the author observes and records the human condition.
The novel takes place in 1960s New York, in an area of the projects known as Causeway in southern Brooklyn. It chronicles the lives of this community after the shooting of a major drug dealer in broad daylight. The protagonist and catalyst for the novel’s events, Sportcoat, is the flaming arrow who ties the lives of the characters together. As the alcoholic deacon of the community’s Five Ends Baptist Church, Sportcoat’s motivations for shooting drug dealer Deems Clemens are widely speculated by African-American and Hispanic residents, ranging from a drunken accident to an act of God. Even the neighborhood’s drug kingpins, mobsters, police, and Clemens himself voice their reasons for the shooting, as its repercussions reverberate through the subsequent weeks, bringing several conflicts, internal and external, to light.
There is no coincidence in McBride’s setting of the story in the 1960s, a time of counterculture and redefining the American Dream. During this time, new and previously marginalized generations found their footing beyond the traditional confines of their predecessors. Much of Deacon King Kong’s plot touches on this era’s racial and class issues, which parallel many of the current events of the past few years. Cycles of violence and survival in low income areas, like the Causeway projects, highlight our need for kindness and guidance to make good choices in tough circumstances. The novel’s deepest moments come when characters like Sportcoat and Clemens reflect on their decisions and make changes to their lives — especially when the former’s mentor relationship to the latter hangs by a mere thread after the confusion of the shooting.
The novel’s setting, Five Ends Baptist Church, acts as a magnet for the plot and characters as well. Originally named Four Ends before its congregation determines that God himself is a “end,” or a direction as worthy of traveling toward as north, south, east, or west, the building acts as a compass pointing the story in different narrative directions. Most of the main players reminisce about what brought them to the church community, evoking fond and disgruntled memories, much like a magnet pulls together and repels forces that come into contact with it. Nevertheless, the direction a character might wander reminds the reader that places and values found in stories are subjective, as McBride states in his dedication, “For God’s people-all of ’em.”
The church’s multilayered foundations mirror those of the players inhabiting and surrounding the building. McBride’s ability to switch voices and maintain distinct personalities demonstrates his insistence on seeing people and situations from every perspective, while exploring how multilayered human relationships can be. Two characters that stand out as prime examples of those qualities are Clemens and Italian mobster Thomas Elefante (nicknamed The Elephant). On the surface it’s easy to categorize the two as mere criminals, using the neighborhood for their own benefit. However, McBride gives voice to these characters to peel back their facades and reveal sides of their personalities hidden deep within them. Despite Clemens’ status as the primary Causeway drug dealer, readers get to see how the young man was pulled into the underworld to provide for his family, abandoning his aspirations to become a pro baseball player. In the same regard, Elefante’s persona as a feared mob boss gives way as his roles of devoted son, hopeless romantic, and Causeway watchdog allow readers to sympathize and understand the motivations for his actions.
Like Clemens and Elefante, many of the novel’s other characters get the same treatment and contribute to both the story’s serious and lighthearted moments. Whether it’s the banter between the church choir, the local gossips’ needs to stir the pot, or the antics of Sportcoat and his friends Hot Sausage and Rufus evading both police and hitmen alike, everyone has their own views on the revelations that come about by the novel’s conclusion.
Readers will be entranced by the prose and witty dialogue that shape this narrative. Not unlike ensemble novels such as Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth or Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, McBride continues to distinguish himself and his voice while crafting his story in this revitalized style. He is also one of the authors beautifully commentating on the issues in the present by evoking a past, yet familiar, backdrop. Deacon King Kong keeps the laughs fresh with each subsequent rereading, reminding readers that we are all human and our very existence can touch or magnetize our lives even in the smallest ways.
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