17 November 2020

Deacon King Kong

I am partial to contemporary novels that use some of the conventions of our favorite genre, and I am always pleased when I find a new author who uses them skillfully. National Book Award winner, James McBride, has mean streets, drug deals, even a professional assassin in the mix but Deacon King Kong is certainly not an exercise in noir. Rather it is the sort of skillful, basically comic plot one might come up with if one could mix Walter Mosley and Jane Austen with a dash of either Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison. 

The novel's dialogue is vigorous and the characters love to talk. They all have a lot to say, but chief among them is the title character, Deacon King Kong, AKA Sportcoat. An alcoholic, Sportcoat is a noted umpire, baseball strategist, deacon of his church, and plantsman. He lives to drink and funds his passion with a series of odd jobs: taking out the trash from the church, stacking boxes for the liquor store, and digging wild plants with an even older eccentric, Mrs. Elephante, one of the last of the Italian residents, whose son, The Elephant, is the last of the resident Italian mobsters.

Sportcoat and the Elephantes are surrounded by other vividly drawn characters: Deems, the local heroin dealer and former baseball standout, Sister Gee, the noble-hearted churchwoman, Sargent Potts, an honest cop on the verge of retirement, and Sportcoat's buddies Hot Sausage and Rufus, not to mention the giant, Soup, and the Haitian Sensation.

The time is the late 60's, early 70's. John Lindsay is mayor, and Robert Moses is bulldozing the old neighborhoods in the name of progress and highways. Heroin has arrived, and even the old mob is getting in on the act. The Cause Houses, a once Italian now Black and Latino housing project, has aged without improving. Its struggling inhabitants are surrounded by crime and violence, both official and freelance, and they waver between the tiny church with the hope of salvation and the plaza drug market with the hope of profit.

McBride supplies two useful McGuffins and a good deal of action. He is as fond of coincidences and plot quirks as Agatha Christie and comes to a neat resolution of the several plot strands. But what makes Deacon King Kong especially interesting to me, is that many of the characters, even some deep in mob activities, are truly in pursuit of the good, of redemption, of genuine love. 

Evil is easy in writing, goodness is tough to do, a fact that might drive the philosophical to notions of original sin. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, very different books from Deacon King Kong, manage it. McBride, with a completely different style of writing and plot, manages it too. His characters are afflicted with uneasy longings. Sportcoat, an unrepentant drunk, talks to his late wife, Hettie, whom he loved and disappointed.The Elephant dreams of marrying a country girl and becoming a good man. Sister Gee, a genuinely kind and good person, struggles with disappointment and thinks about happiness, and even the vicious young drug dealer has moments when he remembers baseball, another activity of strategy, timing and skill and thinks of an alternate life. Though mired in all the sordidness urban poverty can provide, the chief characters in Deacon King Kong would agree with Socrates: our true and most important pursuit must be the Good.


  1. Thanks, Janice, I'll look this one up.

  2. I will definitely look this one up. And in a misspent youth and long life, I've seen that most people really want redemption, goodness, true love. They may screw it up every time, but they want it, desperately.

  3. Interesting, Janice! (Even the title's catchy.)

  4. Sounds like a great read. Just ordered it.

  5. I don't think you'll be disapppointed!

  6. I don't think you'll be disapppointed!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>