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.