Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5
(Content Warning: alcohol and drug addiction)
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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.