Books

The Old-Fashioned Warmth of James McBride

An affectionate novel about a housing project where residents hunt for buried treasure and a dope dealer refuses to sell to grandmothers.

A photo of James McBride.
James McBride’s affectionate, forgiving, hopeful humanism arrives like a balm.
Chia Messina

If ever a novel was out of step with the mood of its historical moment, it’s James McBride’s Deacon King Kong. The presiding spirit of the book is Christian, but not of the punitive, close-minded variety that commands the lion’s share of public attention. McBride’s novel is also resolutely untribal, with a dedication that reads “For God’s people—all of ‘em.” Even the antagonists in Deacon King Kong are not particularly vicious, not the cold-faced hitwoman whose reasons for double-crossing a drug lord seem solid enough, not even the dirty cops or the Italian mobsters grappling for a piece of the fledgling drug market at the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn in 1969, where the novel is set. When I read Junot Díaz’s review, for the New York Times, of Deacon King Kong, in which he insists that the novel is lit up with “clarifying rage,” I laughed; McBride’s has got to be the least angry book about a housing project I’ve ever read.

No doubt there are many (including myself, in times past) who consider an approach like McBride’s—one that focuses on the redemptive power of the bonds people form across divides of race, ethnicity, generations, and gender—sentimental and lacking in righteous indignation about structural injustice. But these days rage and indignation can be found in abundance pretty much everywhere you turn, earned and unearned, whether you want them or not. In such a climate, McBride’s affectionate, forgiving, hopeful humanism arrives like a balm, or—dare I say it?—a blessing.

Deacon King Kong is a comic novel, with most of its humor bubbling up from the small congregation of Five Ends Baptist Church, which operates out of a cinderblock building by the Brooklyn waterfront. The story’s inciting incident is a shooting: more whydunit than whodunit, since it takes place in broad daylight beside the flagpole, the central gathering place of the “Cause Houses.” A 71-year-old deacon shoots the ear off of 19-year-old Deems Clemens, “the most ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen.” The deacon, who goes by the nickname Sportcoat—other Cause Houses nicknames include Bum-Bum, Lightbulb, Soup, and Sportcoat’s best friend, Hot Sausage—not only can’t say why he did it, he doesn’t even remember doing it. Sportcoat’s fondness for the moonshine cooked up by the janitor in a nearby project, a concoction known as King Kong, has addled his memory, giving the alcoholic deacon his alternate nickname, and the novel its title.

A conflict between a preacher and a drug runner in a housing project may sound gritty, but Deems’ ruthlessness is not on an Avon Barksdale level. Not even close. Deems once attended Five Ends Church and even pitched for a Cause Houses baseball team, so he forbids his crew from occupying the prime real estate around the flagpole in the morning, out of respect for the elderly church members who hang out there until noon. He refuses to sell dope to grandmothers. He has no desire to wreak vengeance on Sportcoat and allows his supplier to send a henchman to rough the deacon up, so that Deems doesn’t have to do it himself.

It seems likely that McBride chose to set Deacon King Kong in 1969 because he wanted to depict a Brooklyn project on the verge of being taken over by drugs, before violence and addiction’s toll fully escalated. Another key character, Tommy Elefante, runs a goods-smuggling trade he inherited from his father out of a box car a block from the church. He’s a character right out of a Mario Puzo novel, a stoic, middle-aged Genovese with an icy temper who strives mightily to keep out of the drug business, as Don Corleone did. Otherwise, Deacon King Kong feels historically unmoored; not a single character mentions Vietnam or Martin Luther King Jr. None of the men appear to be veterans of any war.

Is this a weakness? Perhaps, but McBride doesn’t seem interested in writing historical fiction. Despite the urban setting, this is a village novel, like Emma or Barchester Towers, an ensemble piece about the way a small community of flawed characters who think they know one another all too well cope with newcomers and their own capacity for change. The plot features a lot of palaver about Deems’ scheme to switch suppliers and the gangster’s comically thwarted attempts to punish Sportcoat, who’s oblivious to the danger. True love flowers sweetly between two unlikely middle-aged couples. Characters seek not one but two buried treasures, even if one of them is just the church’s Christmas fund, hidden away by Sportcoat’s late wife, Hettie, in a place no one has been able to discern.

But the meat of McBride’s novel lies in Five Ends Church, in its scandals and feuds, its good deeds and fellowship, the aid its members offer one another in times of need, their sensational funerals. Early on, two of the choir’s best singers get into a spat over a microphone. “Church fights are normally hushed, hissy affairs,” McBride explains, “full of quiet backstabbing, intrigue, and whispered gossip about bad rice and beans. But this spat was public, the best kind.” The novel’s narrative voice emanates from the community itself, a patchwork of rumor and lore, with its taproot in midcentury black folk culture, in stories passed around until they become as much myth as history. Legend has it that once upon a time a 3-year-old Sportcoat barfed so vilely on a pastor that the man

announced, “He’s got the devil’s understanding,” and departed for Chicago, where he quit the gospel and became a blues singer named Tampa Red and recorded the monster hit song “Devil’s Understanding,” before dying in anonymity flat broke and crawling into history, immortalized in music studies and rock-and-roll college courses the world over, idolized by white writers and music intellectuals for his classic blues hit that was the bedrock of the $40 million Gospel Stam Music Publishing empire, from which neither he nor Sportcoat ever received a dime.

A lot of delight to be found in Deacon King Kong comes from its dialogue. “Why didn’t she lock it in the pastor’s office?” Sportcoat wonders to a friend about the missing Christmas fund. “What fool would keep money ’round a pastor?” the friend replies. Hot Sausage is forever telling Sportcoat, “Your cheese done slid off your cracker.” A running joke in the novel is that no one seems to know what deacons do. McBride’s love for this small-time, profoundly decent churchy milieu, with all its foibles, radiates from Deacon King Kong so powerfully you can almost feel the pages warm in your hands. It comes as no surprise, then, that McBride’s acknowledgments thank “the humble Redeemer who gives us the rain, the snow, and all things in between,” or to learn that his parents founded the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The miracle is that even for those of us who have never visited such a place and most likely never will, he still makes it feel like home.