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Deacon King Kong

Review

Deacon King Kong

I thoroughly enjoyed James McBride’s latest novel. It’s an easy read, featuring deliciously vivid characters and a virtual buffet of cultural feasts. Having grown up in that part of the country during the same time, 1969, I easily recognized the true-to-life nature of the Irish cop, the New York Housing Projects and the remnants of the Italian neighborhoods. It’s this authenticity that allows McBride to weave in his social commentary on all of their lives. If you love historical fiction for its ability to dress naked history with the passions, pains and joys of the time, then you will fully appreciate DEACON KING KONG.

When Deems Clemens, an up-and-coming drug dealer in a housing project named The Cause, is unwittingly shot, it ignites a chain of events that draws different groups into the melee. Before it’s all over, hitmen, cops and the mob become involved in the dance --- a dance that has been playing for years. Plots and subplots are beautifully unified and brought full circle by the end of the novel. This is essentially a classic love story, leavened with the complexities of life in the projects. McBride makes you rethink traditional notions of who is good, powerful and alone. And, most importantly, what and where love is.

"Adeptly composed and written, DEACON KING KONG is a funny and heartfelt tribute to those New Yorkers who no one writes or cares about. It explores more than just their indigence; it celebrates their struggles, their relationships and love. Yes, mostly love."

My first impression of DEACON KING KONG was that there were too many characters too fast. But if you trust the author, he rewards you with rich descriptions to keep them all straight. The Elephant, Lightbulb, Hot Sausage and Sportcoat all have flavor, depth and plenty of identifying distinction. By the end of the book, they will have become so real that should they ever appear in a movie, the actors almost certainly would disappoint. My favorite is Sportcoat. Not only is he magnificently detailed, he floats above the story. While so many other characters are shackled to their lives, and even to their physical locations, Sportcoat has a freedom that no one else possesses.

Most of the book takes place in The Cause, a small neighborhood where the Five Ends Baptist Church, situated among the projects, is so painstakingly laid out that I could sketch the entire tableau from memory. The greater world beyond is filled in instantly when the Elephant tells the Governor that he is listening to Cousin Brucie on the radio. With that one line, 1970 New York springs to life --- the rot, the crime, the changing demographics. But while there is an indictment of life in the projects, there is also an emotional attachment to the people and the lives they struggle to build among the ruins.

The book’s central location is further defined by a local demilitarized zone known as “the flagpole,” where all the Cause residents congregate and where drug dealers wait patiently for the older church folk to finish their coffee and gossip before opening for business. More importantly, it represents a commonality that supersedes all their differences --- possibly New York itself. A place that must be shared. A place that cannot be claimed exclusively by any one group.

As one would expect, the book drips with cultural and racial contrasts. Blacks, Italians, Puerto Ricans and the Irish all revolve around the flagpole independently while at the same time influencing each other’s orbit. McBride’s writing captures this balance nicely in one of my favorite passages:

“In those twenty minutes the war between the races, the Italians versus the Irish, was waged, the two representatives of the black souls of Europe, left in the dust by the English, the French, the Germans, and later in America by the big boys in Manhattan, the Jews who forgot they were Jews, the Irish who forgot they were Irish, the Anglos who forgot they were human, who got together to make money in their big power meetings about the future…”

Adeptly composed and written, DEACON KING KONG is a funny and heartfelt tribute to those New Yorkers who no one writes or cares about. It explores more than just their indigence; it celebrates their struggles, their relationships and love. Yes, mostly love.

Reviewed by John Vena on March 27, 2020

Deacon King Kong
by James McBride

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 073521672X
  • ISBN-13: 9780735216723