In Deacon King Kong, the venerable James McBride’s first novel since winning the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, a grief-stricken church deacon nicknamed Sportcoat shoots Deems, a 19-year-old drug dealer, at a Brooklyn-area housing project called the Cause Houses in 1969.
The shooting shocks the community of the Causes Houses and nearby Five Ends Baptist Church and triggers a chain of subplots that McBride explores in touching and intriguing ways. Such a web of interconnected relationships could produce confusion when from the pen of a less talented writer. McBride, however, gives every character finely tuned identities and experiences. Aside from Sportcoat and Deems, there is Officer Potts Mullen, a worn-down white beat cop who yearns for the heart of cynical yet warm-hearted African American pastor’s wife Sister Gee. Soup is a recently released ex-convict and Nation of Islam convert who seeks to heal the community that he used to hurt. Italian mobster Tommy Elephante, also known as the Elephant, is the neighborhood boogeyman who is pursuing a treasure hunt left behind by his deceased father. These subplots are tied together by a mysterious link that reveals itself over time.
These are just a few of the threads that comprise the web of experiences that generate the book’s ultimate protagonist, the Cause Houses. The characters are mere microorganisms; the Cause is the body. McBride imagines the project building not just as a setting but also as a living being that speaks, laughs, cries and, most importantly, loves.
Deacon King Kong engages with serious issues including grief, poverty, drug use and gun violence, among others. At the same time, it is an incredibly funny novel. McBride’s comedic language and timing are precise and dynamic. Comedy is cultural, and in a truly exceptional move, he gives authentic comedic voices to characters with wide-ranging racial and cultural backgrounds.
Deacon King Kong finds a literary master at work, and reading the book’s 384 pages feels like both an invigorating short sprint and an engrossing marathon. It is a deeply meditative novel that leaves the reader swept up in a wave of concurrent and conflicting emotions. Deacon King Kong reaffirms James McBride’s position among the greatest American storytellers of our time.