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Wit and warmth light James McBride’s ‘Deacon King Kong’

The National Book Award winner sets his new comic novel in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969.

When I put James McBride’s new novel, Deacon King Kong, into my carefully ordered to-be-read pile months ago, I had no idea I’d be reading it at just the right time.

In the first weeks of March 2020, there was nothing I needed more than a book that would make me laugh out loud more times than I could count — and remind me that when disaster strikes, the most unlikely people can reach out to help.

You might not guess it’s that kind of book from its opening paragraph, irresistible as it is: “Deacon Cuffy Lambkins of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.”

All of that’s true, but almost none of it is quite as it seems. Clemens survives, minus one ear; Sportcoat, despite 16 witnesses to the shooting, isn’t arrested. The question that drives the book is why Sportcoat shot Deems, whom he’s known since Deems was a child and whom he lovingly coached into a star baseball player before the kid’s career change to selling heroin.

Even Sportcoat doesn’t know the answer to that question. Raised in poverty in the South and marked by bad-luck omens since birth, he has survived a dizzying list of diseases and injuries. Add to that the fact that, at 71, he’s been pickling his brain in alcohol for decades — the nickname that gives the book its title comes from his fondness for a particularly potent home brew called King Kong — it’s no surprise he has trouble remembering things. Yet he’s a cheerful friend, a handyman who can make anything work and a gardener who can make anything grow, a beloved man in his community. A holy fool, if you will.

Sportcoat is also grieving the recent death of his wife, Hettie. If you have a secret hope that a spouse’s demise might be the end of marital bickering, McBride has a surprise for you. After her splendid funeral at Five Ends Baptist, Hettie starts appearing to Sportcoat in dreams and in daylight, and all she wants to do is fight.

“Now she was all New York: insolent, mouthy, and fresh, appearing out of nowhere at the oddest times of the day, and each time wearing a new damn wig on her head, which, he suspected, was something she’d received as a gift from the Lord for her life struggles.” But on the matter of why Sportcoat shot Deems, Hettie has no answers.

McBride first made his literary mark in 1995 with his bestselling memoir The Color of Water. In 2013, The Good Lord Bird, his comic novel about abolitionist John Brown, won the National Book Award. President Barack Obama awarded him a National Humanities Medal in 2016. McBride is also a musician and songwriter and has worked on several movie projects with filmmaker (and fellow Brooklynite) Spike Lee.

Deacon King Kong is set in their hometown, but this is not the current high-rent hipster Brooklyn. This is 1969 in the “Republic of Brooklyn, where ... aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave.” In McBride’s hands it’s a place alive with humanity. Its rollicking cast of characters insult and con and disappoint one another, but they also love fiercely and close ranks when the chips are down.

Sportcoat’s motive is far from the only mystery in the neighborhood. There’s “Jesus’s cheese,” delicious fresh “white people cheese” which has for years been delivered every month to the church by unknown means to be given away and savored. There’s Thomas Elefante, a.k.a. the Elephant, a fortyish Italian bachelor who lives with his mom and runs a stolen goods ring out of a boxcar on the nearby pier. And there’s Sister Paul, a 102-year-old whom almost no one at Five Ends remembers but who faithfully mails her tithe of $4.13 from a nursing home in faraway Bensonhurst.

They all have parts in Sportcoat’s story, as do a horde of unstoppable Colombian ants, a black radical called Bunch Moon and, in a crucial role, the priceless prehistoric artifact known as the Venus of Willendorf, who looks to Sportcoat like “a little colored lady.”

With its luscious prose, exuberant wit and outsized characters, Deacon King Kong echoes brilliant storytellers from Eudora Welty to Richard Pryor. It also buzzes with the energy and deep awareness of black history that animate McBride’s wonderful biography of James Brown, Kill ‘Em and Leave.

And its timing is perfect.

Deacon King Kong

By James McBride

Riverhead Books, 370 pages, $28

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