This is a poignant, yet undeniably fun romp through Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods in the late 60s. The characters and drama of James McBride's new novel, “Deacon King Kong” are as quirky as the title and fully-drawn and entertaining as his other books, maybe even more so. To be sure this is a multi-character driven book made up mostly of a black community, followed by Italian and Irish characters, with the title character driving the plot. It all starts when an elderly former church deacon commonly referred to as Sportcoat (aka, Deacon King Kong) shuffles into the plaza of a Brooklyn housing project and shoots Deems, a young drug dealer. Sportcoat is known for being a curmudgeon of a neighbor, often drunk and oddly carrying on conversations with his deceased wife, but never regarded as a gun-toten’ danger. All those looking on, are shocked and initially silent. They either have questions regarding the shooting, or they carefully crafted theories.
As the story unfolds, so too do the rich, often humorous layers of Sportcoat and the book’s entire cast of colorful characters. Some of them are church-goers, some gangsters, some are just innocent passersby, and even a couple of police detectives. Most of them have more than one name, and all of them overlap with each other and contribute to the novel’s unique rhythm. Although McBride doesn’t give much in the way of traditional demarkations of the period, the reader is always aware of the era. Much of this is due to McBride’s use of language, the obvious segregation, along with the racial and racist overtones. Despite the latter, there is a humanity to all the players, even the unlikable ones.
“Sportcoat ain’t hard to find,” she said. “He’s around. You wanna go get him, go ahead. It’s not gonna change nothing. Deems is still out there slinging poison like clockwork every day at the flagpole at noon. He hasn’t moved a peep toward bothering old Sportcoat, far as I know. Fact is, he’s more polite now than before. They say he’s changed a little. Even still, some folks send their children to buy drugs for ‘em. Imagine that? Sending a little child nine, ten years old, out to buy drugs. This projects was never that way. What are we doing wrong?”
She seemed so sad as she said it, it was all Potts could do to stop himself from placing an arm around her right there, right behind the church in the shade under Jesus’s sad painted gaze, and saying, “Its’ all right. I got you.” Instead he said, “I’m speaking as a friend, miss. You- all of you- need to step back k and let us do our job here.”
From the projects to the docks, “Deacon King Kong” portrays wonderful characters and vivid scenarios and settings, making it as much comedy as it is crime mystery or drama … and all of it is enjoyable. Even when it maybe wraps up too nice and neat, it’s hard to find fault in it. In fact, at times like this, maybe the tidiness of it all is especially appreciated. it’s honest, it’s humorous and its wonderfully humane. There’s nothing wrong with that.