In the first paragraph of Deacon King Kong by James McBride, the title character, aka Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lambkin, shoots a young drug dealer on the plaza of a public housing project where they both live in 1969 New York City. The surprise is that a story with such a gritty opening turns out to be a genuine, feel-good, heart-warming and fun novel.
I’d heard of McBride’s work, in particular the best-selling The Color of Water, and The Good Lord Bird, recently adapted into a series for Showtime starring Ethan Hawke, but I didn’t know anything about the author himself. That changed when I heard a re-broadcast of an interview he did with NPR host Sam Sanders, on Sanders’ show “It’s Been a Minute.” To see or listen to the interview: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/874480358
McBride is a prolific, African American novelist, memoirist, and journalist. Sanders interviewed him in early June, shortly after the murder of George Floyd. What struck me was McBride’s hopeful, open-hearted attitude in the midst of race riots and pandemic. He talked about cultivating forgiveness, and welcoming all who aspire to be allies, despite past failings. In keeping with that, when Sanders asked about Deacon King Kong, McBride latest novel, the writer talked about the importance of developing fully formed, sympathetic characters that might elicit understanding in the reader. Indeed it seems there are few minor characters in this book, as McBride gives so many that sought-after three dimensions.
The plot focuses on the 71-year-old Baptist Deacon, best known as “Sportcoat,” who suddenly gets a notion to shoot a drug dealer he’d known since the young man was a child in Sunday school. Sportcoat is a good-natured alcoholic, carrying on a near-constant dialogue with his dead wife, as he lumbers along from one odd job to the next, often stopping off in the Project’s basement or boiler room to drink home-distilled liquor alone or with friends. But the book features an ensemble of vivid characters, denizens of the projects and its surrounding neighborhood, and each touches the reader in a different way: the loneliness of an Italian mobster, the humanity of a sensible Irish cop, the frustration of the overburdened wife of the community pastor. I can see this book as the basis for a TV dramedy; there is so much potential in these realistic people. But the plot also intrigues us, filled as it is with twists, mysteries and red herrings, as well as a few comic sequences, silly enough to remind me of Roadrunner cartoons. You see, there’s a hitman, as inept as Wile E. Coyote. He’s felled by bizarre accidents as his prey wanders away, unaware he was ever in any danger at all.
I can’t say the novel ends well for everybody, but there is hope, healing, and redemption for everybody we like, including Sportcoat and—well, there is a big spoiler I would love to reveal, but you’re just going to have to read the book. It’s a good one to start off 2021. Enjoy!