Thursday, May 28, 2020

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Source of book: I own this.

 This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. I hadn’t heard of either this book (which just came out) and wasn’t familiar with James McBride, although a few of his other books sound familiar. However, I rather enjoyed it, as did other members of our club, making it one of the most universally loved selections since I joined the club. 

 James McBride has apparently written a number of other books, often with historical settings, and was awarded a National Humanities medal by President Obama. I dare say I will be putting his other books on my reading list.

 I’m not even sure what to call Deacon King Kong. It is literary fiction, in my opinion. But it is such a weird blend of pathos and humor that it defies categorization. It is a thoughtful book, but with elements of slapstick and magical realism. It makes a pair of suicides seem like a sacrament - a baptism. It makes a potential affair seem good for the characters. It has killer red ants, killer hooch, and mysterious cheese. And, more than anything, it has a bunch of memorable characters, any of which could be the center of their own story. 

 Set in the Brooklyn projects in 1969, the book starts and centers around a bizarre incident. “Sportcoat,” an old man who lost his wife a few years back and has spiraled into alcoholism, shoots the ear off the local drug dealer, a young man named Deems, who was once Sportcoat’s protege in the local baseball team. From there, the past and present swirl around the fallout from that incident, drawing in gangsters, cops, smugglers, an ancient artifact, and a few old secrets. Sportcoat is the deacon of the title - a deacon of Five Ends Baptist Church who prefers the illicit hooch King Kong to any commercial preparation. 

 As it turns out, there are connections to The Elephant, the last in a line of Italian smugglers. Why did his dad fund the construction of the church, including an epic mural of Christ on the side? Deems, in turn, is the pivot point of a drug war. And why did Sportcoat’s wife Hettie end up floating in the harbor? And what happened to the Christmas Fund money she kept but never told anyone where? 

 McBride brings in an honest Irish cop trying to make it alive to retirement, a dying gangster whose daughter runs a bagel shop, the delightful maintenance man for the building, Hot Sausage, and so many more. 

 I hesitate to describe the book more than that, because the plot is fun and full of surprises (although I figured out a few things ahead of time.) I recommend reading it for yourself. 

 McBride’s writing is outstanding - one of the comments in our club meeting was that from the first few pages, you really feel like you are there. The sights and sounds and smells and social dynamics really come alive. One person who had lived in New York City concurred with the reality of the area described - McBride grew up there, the son of an African American preacher and a Jewish-Polish mother - the daughter of a rabbi. The thing is, McBride doesn’t actually spend a whole lot of words on descriptions: he manages to create the picture without obviously doing so. Also a feature of his style is that he can take shootings and drugs and booze and gangsters and add the humor and slapstick without it feeling like a parody. It’s as much a part of the world he creates as the ghost of Hettie. 

 There are lots of good lines, a few of which I jotted down. 

 The first is an incident that is pretty hilarious, but has almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot: an explanation of how the red ants came to Brooklyn. Hector, the Colombian immigrant, gets too big for his britches, and dumps his wife and kids back home. She tearfully agrees to a divorce, and packs him lunch. When he opens it back in Brooklyn, he finds it full of the red ants, and a note saying “Adios motherfucker...we know you ain’t sending no pesos!” The ants establish themselves, and become part of the yearly life of the projects. This leads into a fantastic sentence in which the ants become


...a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs eat their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich — West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious — and on it went, the whole business of the white man's reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrows slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.


I’m not the only reviewer to have noticed that line. It’s arguably the most memorable line in the book.

 The missing Christmas Fund money is not only a big motivation for Sportcoat, it puzzles everyone in the church. Hettie never did disclose its location, and it never does appear. (Sorry about the spoiler.) Did she simply pocket the money herself? It seems possible. Is it hiding somewhere in the church? Also possible. What isn’t a mystery is why she kept it herself. 


“She ain’t supposed to walk around with the Christmas box.”

“She had to hide it someplace after she collected for it. Normally she hid it at church. But she didn’t always have time to wait for church to empty out. Sometimes folks would linger eating fish dinners or the pastor would preach overtime or some such thing and she had to go home, so she brung it home with her.”

“Why didn’t she lock it in the pastor’s office?”

“What fool would keep money ‘round a pastor?” Rufus asked. 

Sportcoat nodded knowingly.  


I have been a part of a number of churches in my lifetime, and one thing I can say is that I agree with Rufus. And, interestingly, one of the best ways to tell if a pastor is honorable about money is how careful he is to distance himself from the money. The honorable ones keep as far away as possible from it, delegating the financial stuff to someone independent. (Or at least as independent as possible in a small church.) It makes a difference. 

 Another interesting observation comes from the old, retired gangster, the Governor, talking about his deceased brother. (Who was also an artifact smuggler - he found a cave of stolen Nazi treasures including, in a fictional incident, the Venus of Willendorf. This artifact is in the book, although clearly the whole episode is fiction, not fact.) 


“He had an apartment in the Village the size of a rugby field. Full of fancy things. I never asked. He had no kids, so I figured it wasn’t anything. My poppa couldn’t stand Macy. He used to say, ‘Macy likes boys.’ I told Poppa, ‘There was a priest at Saint Andrews who’s said to like boys.’ But he didn’t want to hear it. I was a young man back then, fast on my feet and a bit of a wanker, but even then I knew the difference between a sick man who likes children and a man sweet on men.” 


This is a distinction lost on a lot of people in my Fundie former tribe, alas. 

 Another perceptive passage concerning sex is between the Irish cop and the wife of the pastor of Five Ends Baptist. She is in a loveless marriage, to an older man who she married before she understood what she was doing. As a divorce attorney, this rings true. 


She had been seventeen when she wed a man twelve years older than her. He had seemed to have purpose but turned out to have none, other than an affinity for football games and the ability to pretend to be what he was not, to pretend to feel things he did not feel, to make jokes out of things that did not work for him, and like too many men she knew, daydream about meeting some lovely young thing from the choir, preferably at three a.m., in the choir pew. She didn’t hate her husband. She just didn’t know him.


This one too was fascinating. Sister Gee (the pastor’s wife) is pressed for information by Potts, the Irish cop, after an incident in which the hapless Earl tries to put a hit on Sportcoat, but ends up bonked by a wayward bottle, then set on the subway back home by Sister Gee and a young gentle giant from the church. 


“You should have called us.”

“Why we got to have the police around every time we has a simple party? Y’all don’t watch out for us. Y’all watch over us. I don’t see y’all out there standing over the white folks in Park Slope when they has their block parties.” 


In recent years, as cell phone video has made it increasingly obvious even to this sheltered white guy that our experience with the police is vastly different from the experience of non-whites, McBride calls it straight. “To Protect and Serve,” as the LAPD motto goes, is directed at whites. The police protect “us” from “them.” And serve “us” at the expense of “them.” It’s a heartbreaking state of affairs. 


In a conversation later in the book, Potts can’t quite understand why the Five Ends folks are so obsessed with that Christmas Club money. 


“You were talking about the church money. It’s got nothing to do with this trouble.”

“It’s got everything to do with it. That Christmas Club money is all we can control. We can’t stop these drug dealers from selling poison in front of our houses. Or make the city stop sending our kids to lousy schools. We can’t stop folks from blaming us for everything gone wrong in New York, or stop the army from calling our suns to Vietnam after them Vietcong done cut the white soldiers’ toenails too short to walk. But the little nickels and dimes we saved up so we can give our kids ten minutes of love at Christmastime, that’s ours to control. What’s wrong with that?”


Although Potts isn’t quite getting it, he is falling in love with Sister Gee, and he flounders trying to express his concern for the danger she is in. After all, the drug bigwig wants to put the hit on Sportcoat; and, since the hapless Earl failed, is sending in his big gun: Harold Dean. 


He wanted to say, “He’s a killer and I don’t want him near you.” But he had no idea what her reaction would be. He didn’t even know what Harold Dean looked like. He had no information other than an FBI report with no photo, only the vaguest description that he was a negro who was “armed and extremely dangerous.” 


Dang, that’s some good satire. And it particularly hits home because “Harold Dean” is actually Haroldeen, a young woman. The whole “hey, he looked like the suspect” is problematic for the reason above. It seems the “all black people look alike” trope is alive and well in law enforcement, alas.

 [Side note: years ago, when I saw the Harlem Globetrotters, one of the jokes was that the big “clown prince” guy borrowed a purse from an older woman in the front row. When the referee told him to give it back, he said he couldn’t, because he wasn’t sure who he took it from. It was some woman. What woman? A white woman. Which one? He didn’t know, because they all looked alike…]

 Anyway, Potts keeps harping on “he’s dangerous.” Sister Gee is ready with a great response:


“Nothing in this world is dangerous unless white folks says it is,” she said flatly. “Danger here. Danger there. We don’t need you to tell us about danger in these projects. We don’t need you to say what the world is to us.”


Preach it. And Potts really is trying to get it, which makes him better than a whole lot of people in our country. 

 I have to end with a humorous bit. It would take too long to explain the characters and the situation, but suffice it to say that rumor has it that Hot Sausage was killed in a gun battle. (He was only injured, don’t worry.) 


Joaquin, several spots behind them, looked strangely sad. “I borrowed twelve dollars from Sausage,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t pay it back.”

“God, you are cheap,” Miss Izi said. She was standing a good five people ahead of her ex-husband and stepped out of line to address him. “You’re so tight with money your ass squeaks when you walk.” 


This book was a lot of fun, thoughtful and perceptive, and packed with great characters. I’m definitely planning to add some more James McBride books to my list. 




Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 


Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore


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