Friday, January 8, 2021

Review: Deacon King Kong

From Deacon King Kong, by James McBride:

quote The morning after the shooting, the daily gathering of retired city workers, flophouse bums, bored housewives, and ex-convicts who congregated in the middle of the projects at the park bench near the flagpole to sip free coffee and salute Old Glory as it was raised to the sky had all kinds of theories about why old Sportcoat did it." Deacon King Kong

That "Old Sportcoat," aka Deacon King Kong, did it is clear from the first paragraphs. But why he did it takes a whole book, not just for the reader, but for Sportcoat himself. Great characters and story from a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Grade: B+

This novel is a cross between "Gangs of New York" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The pages are full of characters with names like Sportcoat, Pudgy Fingers, Hot Sausage, Beanie, and Lightbulb. They come from a diverse neighborhood of African-Americans, Haitians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Italians, and Irish. They sell drugs, smuggle goods, and, like Sportcoat himself, do odd jobs here and there. One of those jobs is a deacon at the Five Ends Baptist Church. He doesn't preach, but he plans to. "That night he dreamed of Hettie, and like he often did in the evenings when she was alive, he told her the titles of sermons he planned to preach one day, which usually amused her, since he always had the titles but never the content: 'God Bless the Cow,' and 'I Thank Him for the Corn,' and '‘Boo!’ Said the Chicken.'"

Sportcoat is an alcoholic, "a drunk. One of those guys who dies at twenty and is buried at eighty." His drink of choice is a homemade brew called King Kong. Hence the novel's title, and hence, maybe the sermon titles.

Back to the shooting that opens the novel. Sportcoat, drunk out of his mind, shoots the neighborhood drug dealer at point-blank range in the middle of the plaza where the drug dealer sets up every day selling drugs. That sets in motion a drug war. Sportcoat himself is assumed to have a death warrant on his head. Everyone advises Sportcoat to flee, but strangely, for days no one comes after him, not the victim's bodyguards, nor the drug boss's army, not even the police.

There's a MacGuffin in the story that ties various threads together, and the various ethnic groups in the neighborhood, all the way back to Europe during WWII. The groups generally keep apart from each other, but individuals know individuals in a way that by and large keeps the peace in the community as a whole. And that is what makes the novel "work" for me. This Brooklyn community, poor and struggling and always stressed, nevertheless lives up to the inspiration of the Statue of Liberty, which is always visible just across the New York Harbor. One of the events that tie the neighborhood together is a monthly distribution of cheese from an unknown benefactor. It shows up before dawn once a month at the Five Ends Baptist Church and is distributed freely to one and all.

This was fresh, rich, heavenly, succulent, soft, creamy, kiss-my-ass, cows-gotta-die-for-this, delightfully salty, moo-ass, good old white folks cheese, cheese to die for, cheese to make you happy, cheese to beat the cheese boss, cheese for the big cheese, cheese to end the world, cheese so good it inspired a line every first Saturday of the month: mothers, daughters, fathers, grandparents, disabled in wheelchairs, kids, relatives from out of town, white folks from nearby Brooklyn Heights, and even South American workers from the garbage-processing plant on Concord Avenue, all patiently standing in a line that stretched from the interior of Hot Sausage’s boiler room to Building 17’s outer doorway, up the ramp to the sidewalk, curling around the side of the building and to the plaza near the flagpole.
Source: Deacon King Kong.

"Deacon King Kong" has some of the most memorable characters you're likely to encounter in fiction.

"Deacon King Kong" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library.

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