Review: Deacon King Kong

Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5
(Content Warning: alcohol and drug addiction)
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range.

In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.

As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters–caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York–overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion.

I’m not going to attempt to write a detailed review, because it’s clear that when reading Deacon King Kong I was in WAY over my head. I struggle with literary fiction even in the best of times, but I think with all the stress I’m currently under regarding unknowns at work and Covid I had an especially hard time just concentrating on what I was reading. So at times I LOVED this book, and at other times felt bored out of my mind.

I think the writing is superb, if a little different. I’m reading the reviews and it sounds like a lot of people had trouble focusing on the prose in the first half of the novel. McBride has a tendency towards intentional-run-ons that I think were probably brilliant, but might have contributed to people’s distraction. For me it was the density of the novel. I felt my eyeballs just sliding right down the longer paragraphs, even after I made myself go back and re-read them. I could tell that what I was missing was high-quality, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it.

The plot was a little hit-or-miss. This isn’t a plot-driven novel, but there is an over-arching narrative tying everything together. Because of the way the story unfolds, with different chapters being told by different characters, it’s unclear at first what that narrative is and how it ties together. That’s why some chapters felt like they really grooved and others didn’t. But I think it all came together nicely in the end.

I adored the characters though. They’re simultaneously funny, tragic, and just … normal. I would like to try this book again in the future when I’m feeling more focused just because the characters were so wonderful.

I also loved how hopeful this novel is. I decided to read it even though I’m not usually big on literary novels because I heard an interview with James McBride and he came off as just … FULL of hope for the future. And that’s how this novel is. Yeah, things are tough, and yeah, it’s going to get worse for this neighborhood. But the people don’t let that define them. They find the little things in life they love, and they do their best to make the world a better place, even if it’s just by giving the folks in the projects some fantastic cheese.

7 thoughts on “Review: Deacon King Kong

  1. My wife works in our local public library and it was she who recommended I read this book, and boy, am I glad she did. After a year filled with the barely imaginable toll caused by Covid-19, multiple environmental crises, a bitterly-contested election, James McBride’s vividly-drawn characters and their daily woes restored, in part, my battered and bruised faith in humanity. I know this sounds like a tall-order for a novelist, but McBride pulls it off with a beguiling blend of humanity, humor, and pathos. The characters – Sportcoat, Hot Sausage, Miss Izi, Sister Gee, Deems, the mobster,Tomaso Elefante (aka ‘The Elephant’), Bum-Bum, the cop, Potts – are all uniquely individual in their generosity, their humor, their cruelty – yet they all share in common a deep, if sometimes flawed – as in the case of Deems – humanity. And certainly, in the case of Deems, he is redeemed through Sportcoat’s involvement in his life, from the time Sportcoat shoots him at the beginning of the novel, to close to the end when Sportcoat fishes him out of the New York harbor (intriguingly, is Deems a play on the word ‘Redeemed’? Just a thought).

    Tom ‘the Elephant’ Elefante I found to be one of the most interesting characters in the novel. ‘The Elephant’ runs a smuggling business from the wharf, yet lives with his aging Italian mother in a modest house. She is consumed by her love of plants and herbs, which she uses liberally in her cooking. ‘Sportcoat’ is her handyman, repairing broken utilities and helping her harvest from her herb garden. An elderly Italian white woman and an elderly African-American man cautiously strike up a relationship built on mutual need from which kindness and respect flow.

    All this comes as a surprised to ‘The Elephant’; naturally, he is protective of his elderly mother, but he has the intelligence, empathy, and open-mindedness to see how his mother benefits from Sportcoat’s visits.

    The novel is liberally sprinkled with these sorts of cautious, ‘reaching-across-the-color’ line relationships, in a New York a world away from the glamour of Manhattan This New York, is populated by people trying to make ends meet, working multiple jobs, immigrants, extended families living marginal lives, suspicious of those who do not look like them, often acquainted with a ready resort to violence, yet also ready to offer a kind word or a helping hand.

    I loved that McBride knows his characters inside-out, and that he presents such people – often marginalized, the people who always work for others, keeping things going, the ones in the ICU’s saving lives, the janitors, delivery men and women – I love that he treats them with respect.

    For the most part, McBride avoids infantilizing or sentimentalizing these memorable characters – a risk given the nature of the story, and instead shows them to be complex, many-faceted people, just doing the best they can in an often mean and unforgiving world.


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