“Deacon King Kong: a Novel,” Riverhead Books, by James McBride
James McBride’s sumptuous new novel, “Deacon King Kong,” opens as a crime drama when an aging drunk known as Sportcoat pulls a gun, points it at the face of a 19-year-old drug dealer and fires.
Much more is in store. With many plot twists and spellbinding scenes, “Deacon King Kong” becomes a partly comic but deeply poignant rumination on race and love.
The shooting, committed in September 1969 in broad daylight before many of Sportcoat’s friends, stuns the community, a down-on-its heels Brooklyn neighborhood. The shooting also reverberates throughout the novel, which is far more than a crime thriller or police procedural, although it has a touch of both.
With Sportcoat, a 71-year-old deacon at Five Ends Baptist Church, McBride has created a flawed but compelling and even heroic central figure. He is a bit Hamlet-like, talking to the ghost of his wife, Hettie, a beloved member of his church who was found dead in harbor waters two years before the shooting.
With Sportcoat and Hettie, who arrived at the Cause Houses neighborhood in 1945 as part of the great migration of Southern blacks, the novel becomes a moving love story.
It is also a witty sociological study of a waterfront Brooklyn community dotted with crummy apartments in high-rise housing projects — poor but lively, with derelict docks where crime and commerce mix. Once dominated by newly arrived Italians, it now struggles with a racial and economic mix. But, significantly, it offers its inhabitants a view of the Statue of Liberty.
The narrative flows seamlessly from buoyant and comical black jive to somber, pitch-perfect descriptives of the histories and hard lives of those doing the talking, many with nicknames: Hot Sausage, the Elephant, Lightbulb. Deacon King Kong is the second nickname that locals gave Sportcoat due to his constant drinking of a homemade booze known as King Kong.
McBride includes an element of serious mystery — the whereabouts of the Venus of Willendorf, an enormously valuable figurine dating back many thousands of years. (McBride is giving a fictional twist to the real Venus of Willendorf, which is in a museum in Austria.) This hidden gem becomes an alluring element of high art in a story that mostly features folks on the lower fringes of society.
McBride can turn what first appear to be stereotypes — the church deacon who is an amiable drunk, the teen-age drug dealer poisoning his own neighborhood — into vivid, three-dimensional characters with engrossing life stories. Sportcoat is, among many things, a brilliant, self-made botanist; the teen is a gifted baseball pitcher.
McBride earned wide acclaim for his 1995 memoir, “The Color of Water.” He also wrote the screenplay for the Spike Lee movie based on McBride’s 2003 novel, “Miracle at St. Anna,” and won the National Book Award for his 2013 novel, “The Good Lord Bird.” With “Deacon King Kong,” fiction written in prose that carries the pulsing force of life, he adds another distinguished entry to his wide-ranging repertoire.