James McBride is one of America’s foremost storytellers, a contemporary urban griot whose works offer nuanced portrayals of America’s complex cultural landscape. He first captured our hearts and minds with his 1995 memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. Since then, he’s worked in multiple genres and formats to explore race, love, loss and the basic human threads that unite us all. Following a short story collection and a well-received biography of James Brown, Deacon King Kong marks McBride’s return to the novel.
McBride’s third novel, 2013’s The Good Lord Bird, won the National Book Award in fiction. Following up a major award winner would cause anxiety in some, but not for McBride. “I never thought I’d win a National Book Award, you know,” he says. “So whatever I got out of it is gravy. The pressure was off. I’ve already demonstrated that I can write to the satisfaction of my peers and colleagues on the business side. I felt creatively free to do what I wanted to do. So I wasn’t that worried about it.”
“Courage, modesty and morality are still the spine that holds America together.”
Deacon King Kong centers on the fallout after an elderly, grief-stricken Baptist church deacon named Sportcoat shoots a young former baseball player-turned-drug dealer named Deems at the Cause Houses housing project in 1969. McBride uses his sharp pen and incredible wit to explore the inner lives and interconnections of a diverse cast of characters who either live in or engage with the Cause Houses and nearby Five Ends Baptist Church.
The book features a large set of characters, but the Cause Houses emerge as the central protagonist, taking an almost human form. The buildings are the body, and the characters’ experiences are the organs and organisms that bring it to life. The Cause Houses breathe, communicate, hurt and laugh. For McBride, humanizing the projects was an intentional move.
“There is a dynamic that exists within the lifestyle of this neighborhood . . . and that dynamic involves a lot of love and a lot of respect for each other,” he says. “And a lot of diversity. A lot of mixing other races and not just white/black, but the mixing of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Haitians.”
McBride grew up in a housing project in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but as he notes, it would be a mistake to simply trace the Cause Houses back to his own project experiences. “The Red Hook Houses were not like the Cause Houses, but the same love was there,” he says. “Some of it is based on my experiences living in Red Hook as a child, but a lot of it is based on my experiences living in black America as a man. Because the Cause Houses are in every city, but they just have different names.”
The black church also stars in Deacon King Kong. McBride, who was raised in a black church, bristles at “poor media portrayals” that reduce it to unfortunate stereotypes. Five Ends Baptist Church is a corrective. It is his attempt to illuminate the black church as a site of great intrigue and inspiration.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: An interview with James McBride about his debut novel.
“I really wanted to present the black church as a dynamic place with fully dimensional characters, some of whom are likable, and some of whom are not,” he says. “Some of them are funny, and some of them are not. It’s not just a library or a community center. It’s not a social club. It’s a little bit of all those things. Ultimately, it’s a volunteer agency where people get together and have fun. The faith that holds them together is what makes them interesting, vulnerable and funny at the same time. If you look beyond the race and focus on the humanity of the people, the church is a fascinating place to write about.”
Despite the seriousness of some of its themes, Deacon King Kong is an incredibly funny novel, with sharp comedic language and precise timing that never lets up. Aside from his own ingenuity, McBride’s brand of humor has a variety of influences. He considers Kurt Vonnegut to be the “most extraordinary literary humorist,” but he’s also gleaned much from stage comedians like cross-cultural titans Richard Pryor and George Carlin. He also highlights the impact of underappreciated African American comedians like Redd Foxx, Nipsey Russell and Moms Mabley. He reserves his highest praise for Dick Gregory, whom he suggests was “the one comedian who really understood a lot about the black experience in America.”
Deacon King Kong is an incredibly funny novel, with sharp comedic language and precise timing that never lets up.
When asked what he thinks today’s readers can learn from a story about a shooting in the projects set over 50 years ago, McBride is very direct. “The aim of the book is to show people that we are all alike, that our aims are the same and that we are more alike than we are different,” he says. “We’re currently at a time where we need to be reminded about humanity and our heritage, and the fact that courage, modesty and morality are still the spine that holds America together.”
McBride has had a remarkably successful career by anyone’s standards. Aside from his hotshot debut and award-winning novel, his books have been optioned and adapted for film and television, and he collaborated with legendary filmmaker Spike Lee on the script for Red Hook Summer. When asked to envision the next stage of his career, McBride’s answer illuminates his ultimate purpose as a writer: “I hope that one day my work around the subject of race will be irrelevant and that we’ll find something else to write about. You know, in a hundred years I hope that we’ll be writing about how even though Martians have two heads and one eyeball and look like two-headed Cyclopses, they’re really pretty much the same as us.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Deacon King Kong.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described The Good Lord Bird as McBride’s first novel, not his third.