Deacon King Kong by James McBride


What a wonderful book–I love an author who can make me fall for an old drunk called Sportcoat. The book is set in 1969 in Brooklyn around projects called the Cause Houses when drugs had become a significant business. The story begins with Sportcoat shooting a young smart drug dealer that he had taught to play baseball and had cared for in church. And, oh yes, Sportcoat is a Deacon in the local church and loves his King Kong liquor.

One of the characters is an older policeman who reflects on the changes that have come in recent years–the Mets were about to win the World Series, a man had landed on the moon, and the Cause Houses were deteriorating. Many of the Black people who had come from the South were retiring or moving away. The lovable old drunks, low-level habitual criminals who were a part of his life were nearly all gone. Too many young people became addicted to drugs, the kids he enjoyed had become sullen, and baseball fields were empty. There were fewer of the Italian members of the mob who refused to move drugs.

Still the connections continued. The Black women of the Five Ends Church gathered in a plaza each morning and the young drug dealer whose ear was shot off by Sportcoat did not allow the selling of drugs while the women congregated. Sportcoat was employed by the ancient mother of one of the Italian mobsters as she gathered plants such as pokeweed from the neighborhood. An attraction bloomed between the 48-year-old wife of the Five Ends Church preacher and the nearly retired white policeman.

While the characters were legion (Bum Bum, Hot Sausage, the Elephant), the plot didn’t suffer. More than once I chuckled happily at the perfectly performed plot twists. And while they have foolish names, McBride is clear about the pain that Black people suffered from the many forms racism takes.

Now I want to read his book The Color of Water:  A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother.

James McBride, Deacon King Kong, Riverhead Books, 2020, 370 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.

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