It’s an unlikely recipe for a good novel, much less an excellent, often moving one: create a fictionalized neighborhood in the most well-known city, mix gritty naturalism with ghosts, farce, and slapstick, and frequently use sentences even longer than this one, some chugging for close to 20 lines, leaving you breathless.
Yet James McBride’s new book, “Deacon King Kong,” stirs those ingredients together — along with several novels’ worth of subplots — to create a memorable tale of Black life in America, filled with hurt and frustration but also a perpetual undercurrent of hope. Despite occasionally running on too long, introducing too many characters (with some scanning as mere caricature), and imbuing deadly situations with too many pratfalls, the heart and humanity in his writing keep the pages turning.
McBride, the award-winning author of “The Good Lord Bird” and “The Color of Water,” spent much of his childhood in and around Brooklyn's Red Hook Houses and the church co-founded there by his grandparents. Perhaps his invention of a similar but distinct community, the Causeway Housing Projects, is what allows his imagination to soar so freely while keeping the essence of the characters' struggles so grounded.
The book is set in September 1969. The previous year had been horrific, between the Vietnam War, police brutality at the Democratic National Convention, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, riots, and FBI harassment of Black activists. In New Yorkers’ memories, 1969 is bathed with more of a glow: the Jets Super Bowl upset, the moon landing, peace and love at Woodstock, and the Mets World Series miracle. Yet in the Causeway, where heroin is just now staking its territory, that’s all very distant to the residents, as McBride’s incisive writing repeatedly makes clear.
Take, for example, just two parts of one very long sentence: “... 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 ... while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.”
Every chapter, it seems, has these riffs, this beautiful but horrible poetry that reads as the anti-Whitman, where New York is the “land of opportunity for the white man and a tundra of spent dreams and empty promises for anyone else stupid enough to believe the hype” and the Statue of Liberty is a “gigantic copper reminder that this city was a grinding factory that diced the poor man's dreams worse than any cotton gin or sugarcane field from the old country.”
The novel opens on 71-year-old Cuffy Lambkin; the church deacon of the title (King Kong is the name of a friend’s homemade hooch that he drinks more of than any three people should), he’s Sportcoat to his friends. Sportcoat is a gardener and handyman who misses his wife but can’t stop drinking, who misses his days umpiring and coaching baseball players — particularly 19-year-old Deem Clemens, who had been the greatest talent Sportcoat had seen before blowing it all for the quick money and easy power of the drug dealer’s life.
In the novel's first paragraph, Sportcoat ambles out one day and inexplicably shoots Deem, who represents a more rootless and ruthless new generation. This, everyone declares, will be the death of Sportcoat. Yet everyone has been predicting his demise for years: his childhood was plagued with typhoid fever, the mumps, scarlet fever, dog bites, and curses that convinced his mother that the devil had it in for him. Sportcoat has since suffered near-death from the flu back in ‘58, his three strokes, his gout, piles, arthritis, cyst, hernia, swollen lymph nodes, pulmonary embolism, lupus, adult measles, and a broken eye socket … and worst of all, heartbreak two years prior when his wife, Hettie, committed suicide. Still, like his fellow residents in this hardscrabble community, he keeps going.
And we meet dozens of those other persevering residents, like Bum-Bum, a Sister at the church who prayed each day about her ex-husband “that the Lord might set his balls on fire and they might sizzle on a frying pan like two tiny, flattened potato pancakes.”
So yes, Sportcoat sometimes seems like a character out of a tall tale, less real and more a catalyst for McBride’s subplots. There’s the vicious drug lord, Butch Moon, to whom Deem reports, and who now seeks vengeance for the shooting — his henchmen fall prey to slapstick missteps that sometimes feel out of place in the book. And there’s local and lonely Mafia boss Thomas Elefante, who refuses to deal drugs and prefers smuggling and caring for his aging mother, for whom Sportcoat works as a gardener. He sets off on an unlikely adventure and finds the beginnings of love there. There are the red ants whose annual march to lay claim to the projects’ government cheese (another side story in and of itself) is deliriously detailed. And there’s Officer Potts, an older white policeman investigating the Clemens shooting who falls in love himself, with Sister Veronica Gee, the most organized and thoughtful of the characters, who keeps seeing reason to keep hope alive in these projects.
She grasps tightly to her belief “in the indestructibility of the good in all people,” which seems to be what keeps McBride and his book buoyant: Times were tough then. They’re not much better now. Yet still we hold on to what and whom we love and we keep on going.
Stuart Miller is the author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports” and co-author of “The Other Islands of New York City.”
Deacon King Kong
Riverhead, 384 pages, $28