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Fast, Complex And Funny, ‘Deacon King Kong’ Is A Love Letter To New York City

Image credit: Beth Novey

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James McBride’s Deacon King Kong is a feverish love letter to New York City, people, and writing. The prose is relentless and McBride’s storytelling skills shine as he drags readers at breakneck speed trough a plethora of lives, times, events, and conversations. The novel is 370 pages, but McBride has packed enough in there for a dozen novellas, and reading them all mashed together is a pleasure.

The year is 1969, and Sportcoat is the hard-drinking deacon of an old church in the Cause Houses projects in south Brooklyn. Sportcoat, also known as Deacon Cuffy, lost his wife a while ago, and his life has been on a downward spiral since. He argues with her ghost almost constantly and is obsessed with the money from the Christmas Club, which was in a secret place she didn’t tell anyone about before dying. One day, drunk and angry, Sportcoat saunters into the Cause Houses courtyard, takes a rusty .38 from his pocket, and shoots Deems, the project’s chief drug dealer — right in front of everybody. Deems dodges at the last second and the bullet merely rips his ear off, but the consequences of Sportcoat’s actions go above and beyond a damaged ear and a trip to the hospital.

Deacon King Kong is fast, deep, complex, and hilarious. McBride’s prose is shimmering and moving, a living thing that has its own rhythm, pulls you in from the first page and never lets go. His story focuses on the people that make the Big Apple what it is: the strange, the poor, the insane, the mobsters. He also showcases the city’s wonderful diversity, filling his pages with Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Italians, and Irish folks.

And all these many people get a turn in the spotlight. Sportcoat is at the center of everything, but folks from church and the projects, small time crooks, bodega owners, mobsters, and cops all get space on the page, and they all earn it. McBride has a talent for writing about big ensembles, and here even the city and its animals are important players. For example, there’s a brilliant chapter about the way red killer ants made their way to New York City and became part of the Cause Houses projects:

… a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs eat their own feces, 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, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich — West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious — and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrows slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.

Lastly there is Sportcoat himself, a man who’s a living myth, an impossible amalgamation of stories that make him seem otherworldly, maybe even immortal. When he was a child and his back teeth wouldn’t grow, his mother tried all manner of folk cures — and finally,

She called an old medicine woman from the Sea Islands who cut a sprig of green bush, talked Cuffy’s real name to it, and hung the bag upside down in the corner of the room. When she departed she said, “Don’t say his true name again for eight months.” The mother complied, calling him “Sportcoat,” a term she’d overheard while pulling cotton at of the farm of J.C. Yancy of Barnwell County, where she worked shares …

Deacon King Kong is full of heart, humor, and compassion. It contains page-long sentences that sing and individual lines that stick to your brain like literary taffy. This is a narrative about flawed, poor people navigating an ugly, racist world and trying their best with the help of God, each other, or the bottle; their stories are unique, but the struggles are universal — and that makes this a novel about all of us. In Deacon King Kong, McBride entertains us, and shows us both the beauty and the ugliness of humanity. I say we give him another National Book Award for this one. It’s that good.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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