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.
Title: Deacon King Kong | Author: James McBride | Publisher: Riverhead Books | Pages: 371 | ISBN: 9780735216723 | Publication date: 3rd March 2020 | Source: NetGalley
‘Deacon King Kong’ is one of those books that I wanted to like a lot more than I did. It has a great deal going for it, particularly a great sense of place and a broad cast of fascinating and entertaining characters, but somehow it failed to grip me in a meaningful way and I found myself rushing through it.
The book takes place in New York in 1969 and starts with the shooting of a teenage drug dealer by an alcoholic local man known as Sportcoat. He’s the Deacon King Kong of the title, active in the church but also hopelessly addicted to King Kong, a homemade liquor that he swigs throughout the book. McBride takes that dramatic opening and zooms out to explore it’s impacts on the community the assailant and victim live in. It’s a rundown Brooklyn neighbourhood populated with African Americans, Latinx, Italians and Jews living cheek by jowl and surviving despite their poverty.
What works brilliantly about the book is McBride’s depiction of the area. It lives and breathes on the page, full of life and colour. The characters are great too, and the book is populated with a diverse range of memorable people going about their lives. Some of the events are shocking, some are amusing, but they all feel real.
And yet somehow the book didn’t work for me. There is a plot running through it about a search for a mysterious hidden treasure. McBride uses it to pull the various characters together but it never really sucked me in. The book definitely has a lot to admire about it, but I couldn’t help feeling it could have been better. I ended up finding it a bit too similar to other things (Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ being one) and that diminished its impact and grip on my attention.