Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
James McBride has always had a remarkable ability to examine and understand the human mind, and in Deacon King Kong he puts his talents on display once again. Taking us to a housing project in Brooklyn, we witness the shooting of a drug dealer by an old church deacon and its far-reaching effects on those who witnessed it, as well as those who didn’t.
Table of contents
James McBride Sows the Seeds of Growth
With life moving faster and faster with each decade, society has begun to transform, sometimes growing, other time regressing, at a much more alarming rate than ever before. While in the past it may have taken generations for notable change to happen, today we can go through bouts of nostalgia every few years in a world we are having a harder and harder time recognizing. In his novel titled Deacon King Kong, James McBride takes us to the centre of an event bound to bring about big changes and growth to all those touched by it.
The year is 1969, and the location, a housing project in south Brooklyn called Cause Houses. Like many projects, this one has its own drug dealer, but not for very long. An old church deacon locally known as Sportcoat drunkenly makes his way through the backyard and shoots the dealer point blank, right in front of everyone. From there on out, nobody’s life will be the same.
As the motive behind the shooting becomes an increasingly attractive mystery for the project’s residents, we begin witnessing the very real consequences of the event on all those it touched one way or another. From the unrelated neighbours who saw it happen to the law enforcement agents tasked with investigating the case, we witness the different types of transformation it causes in people, and how their lives can end up overlapping in the most unexpected ways. Change is inevitable, with the only question being how one is willing to face it.
The Ties Binding Us in Deacon King Kong
Whereas in most novels it is possible to point to a specific plotline followed from start to finish, in Deacon King Kong McBride takes a somewhat different approach, showing us a slice of life rather than the classic set-up. With this being said, we do have a definitive protagonist and a story revolving around him, but in my eyes the brunt of the focus was placed on a character amalgam: the Cause Houses community itself.
A man who doesn’t trust cannot be trusted― James McBride, Deacon King Kong
Much of the novel is spent looking at the many ties which bind people in a community, both for better and worse. I’m certain the author could write numerous more novels exploring all the little nooks and crannies of a community which is, for all intents and purposes, about as diverse as they come. A melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities, races, religions, and even ages, the housing project feels like it’s hiding something new around every single corner, with everyone being bound together by a very long and complex string of personal histories.
I found McBride did a magnificent job in depicting this community as a singular living organism where all the parts are interdependent on each other for survival despite working against each other at times. It’s difficult to really hate anyone or the decisions they make, as the author always puts their lives, hopes, dreams and fears into perspective, reminding us they are all fallible humans at the end of the day. In the end, I think it’s safe to say McBride made the deepest aspects of humanity come to the surface in the depiction of his little world, serving as a major building block for the rest of the novel to lean upon.
Odyssey of the Worthless Drunk
While I did mention above Deacon King Kong is more keen on depicting a slice of life rather than moving a specific plot forward, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a story or focus to this whole adventure. Sportcoat, the old deacon who shoots the drug dealer, is our protagonist for the duration of our stay in Cause Houses, and I will be the first to admit I had some conflicting feelings about the idea at first. My first impressions upon meeting him were far from encouraging, as it seemed he was just a drunk so far gone into his own madness following him would be painful.
A man ain’t got to stand in church every Sunday to do God’s work.― James McBride, Deacon King Kong
Thankfully, I was proven wrong the further the novel went along, and McBride really knew what he was doing with the old man. There is much more to him than first meets the eye, and with every door we open in his soul we only dive deeper into the complex labyrinth of his mind.
Additionally, there is a slow constant movement towards the mystery of why the shooting happened, adding a welcome layer of intrigue to his person. From the hilarity of his nonchalance to the thought-provoking nature of his introspective moments, Sportcoat is a wonderfully fleshed out protagonist who I’ll definitely come to miss.
|384||Riverhead Books||March 3 2020||978-0735216723|
Speaking of the characters, I think the compliment can be extended to the secondary actors we meet along the way, many of them sporting nicknames, all of them unique and remarkable in their own ways. When people appeared on the page they were instantly recognizable, and perhaps most importantly considering the nature of this novel, they were believable in their thoughts and actions. Whatever elements each one might bring to the story, they all work hard together to ensure we don’t have a dull moment to speak of.
The Final Verdict
Deacon King Kong by James McBride is a wonderfully touching novel led forward by an unlikely yet unforgettable protagonist, examining an infinitely interesting community with always something more to give. If you enjoy novels which closely explore communities in the wake of a transformative event, then I think this book would be a perfect fit for you.
James McBride is an American musician and author, with the distinction of having received the 2013 National Book Award for his novel The Good Lord Bird. He is also very well-known for his 1995 memoir, The Color of Water, in which he delves into his family history and his relationship with his mother. Some of his other works include Miracle at St. Anna, Five-Carat Soul and Deacon King Kong.