One of the side benefits of this period when we’re mostly all at home, for me, has been that I’m reading even more than I usually do. I’ve polished off fifteen novels since we were asked to stay inside; the best of these, to date, is James McBride’s wonderfully toned “Deacon King Kong”. The novel centers around life in those high rise low income apartments in New York in the late sixties into the early seventies. The neighborhood in Brooklyn which McBride so lovingly and heartfeltedly documents has transitioned from Italian and Irish to African-American and other people of color from mostly Central America. And the petty numbers rackets and other street crimes have also transitioned from those to the horrors of drugs, which have started to infiltrate these projects. Deacon King Kong, or so he is nicknamed by his wife and friends, is the central character and mostly the narrator/protagonist of this insightful and often delightful novel; he’s a deacon, of sorts, in the neighborhood church, around which much of the action takes place in this novel, allowing McBride to create some of the liveliest, most loving, very strong central and secondary characters. McBride wants us readers to know that the people who live in these projects have formed complex friendships and interrelationships; many of them had escaped the worst ravages of The South, though they also have brought North with them a great knowledge of food, of plants and herbs, of animals and of love. The Deacon is most commonly referred to as “Sportcoat”, because of the two such items of clothing he routinely wears; he’s an aging former Southerner, whose wife has recently vanished (probably a suicide) and who, he believes, speaks to and with him nightly–these conversations are much enhanced by Sportcoat’s notorious drinking, but are some of the loveliest and liveliest conversations in the novel.
Sportcoat, one day, sees the young African-Americans from the projects hanging around a central meeting place in them, and shoots one of them, a young man he’d mentored from childhood, taken to church, and gotten involved in the neighborhood baseball team; Deems, this young man, has a great deal of athletic ability but he is wasting it, becoming involved as the local drug dealer. A subplot of the novel will involve some of the adult children of the original Italian gangsters in the area, who, the reader will learn quickly enough, have had a hand in the building of the church in the novel; this church harbors a long buried (literally) secret, which will unravel as the novel proceeds; how McBride weaves all these strains of plot and character through the novel is beautifully done, with humor and wit, accidents and coincidences, but all of which seem to involve the wonderfully delineated Sportcoat, who seems to have at least nine lives. If you took Elizabeth McCracken’s 2019 novel “Bowlaway” and toned it down by a few notches, from nearly completely eccentric to somewhere between probable and possible, you’d get the general tone of McBride’s novel and writing.
McBride’s writing is rhythmic and lively and slightly understated; he knows his characters and their languages, their dialects, their friendships and their loyalties, their hopes and their failures, their strong senses of place, of home, of care and concern for each other. There’s even a little love story in the novel, where an Irish cop, about to retire, who’s assigned to try to figure out what’ s going on with the shooting of Deems and also where the Italian gangsters overlap with the African-Americans, falls in love with one of the church ladies, and she, he; this seeming unlikely love story is exceptionally tender under the circumstances in which these two meet and interact, but it’s still within the realm of the possible, and adds another dimension to this already immensely complex novel. McBride, who’s already won The National Book Award, is one of America’s finest and most complex African-American novelists writing today, and “Deacon King Kong” is surely another great novel by this astute and brilliant writer. “Deacon King Kong” is one of the best novels to date of 2020, and I recommend it to a wide audience wholeheartedly.