Deacon King Kong by James McBride: A review

This book was a hoot to read. Seriously, it gave me several belly laughs which were therapeutic and cleansing, I'm sure. And yet, as I reflect on it, I realize that it was, in a very real sense, a story about grief and how we deal with it.

The book is set in South Brooklyn and at the center of it is the Five Ends Baptist Church. The time is 1969. Humans have just set foot on the moon for the first time and soon the previously most hapless team in all of major league baseball, the Mets, will win the World Series. It is a time of miracles, in other words.

The protagonist of this story is Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of that aforementioned Baptist church but in this neighborhood in Brooklyn, no one is called by his/her legal name. Everyone has nicknames. The deacon is mostly known as Sportcoat, or, somewhat more derisively, as Deacon King Kong after a locally made hooch which he freely imbibes called King Kong. Deacon Cuffy/Sportcoat/Deacon King Kong is just one more miracle. He has cheated death more times than anyone can remember, surviving three strokes and several other near-fatal afflictions. But he may have just signed his final death warrant by shooting off the ear of the local number one drug dealer, Deems Clemens. Deems is backed by "organized crime" and his backers may take exception to the deacon assaulting one of their major earners.

Before Deems started plying his trade, he had been the star of the community's baseball team and Sportcoat had been his coach and a father figure for him, but the team is now disbanded, although Sportcoat still has dreams of getting it started again.

Sportcoat engages in long conversations - aka "fusses" - with his beloved wife of 40 years, Hettie. Perhaps the only unusual thing about that is that Hettie has been dead for two years having drowned in the harbor in full view of the Statue of Liberty. Hettie was very active in the church and she had been in charge of the Christmas fund that congregants contributed to through the year so they would have money to buy presents at Christmas. She had hidden the money and no one, including Sportcoat, knew where it was. That is now the subject of many of their arguments as Sportcoat tries to get her to tell him where the money is because he's afraid the church will think he has stolen it.

Sportcoat spends his days visiting his friends Rufus and Hot Sausage, hitting the King Kong, and attending to his various jobs. He is the mainstay handyman of the neighborhood, doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. His most productive job and the one he is really good at is as a garden helper for an elderly Italian woman. The two traipse around the area rescuing plants like pokeweed and datura (moonflower) from abandoned lots and the verges of the railroads. They plant the plants in the woman's garden. 

The Cause Houses neighborhood was home to a changing population at this time. Earlier immigrants such as the Italians and the Irish were giving way to African-Americans from the South and to Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic newcomers. There was a rich melange of cultures represented and James McBride gives us a glimpse of how it all might have worked. We get to know a vast number of characters from several of these groups in the process and the storyline is almost too complicated to render into a brief synopsis. There are several of those characters, like Sister Veronica Gee and Hettie, that I would like to have known better, but it is, after all, Sportcoat's story. And a cracking good story it is, told by a masterful writer. James McBride has produced another winner.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. So there's not too many characters to keep track of? I thought about this one .... All the names in it seem funny. Sportcoat and Hot Sausage? Someone is having fun. Glad you liked it.

    1. There was no problem keeping track of the characters; they were all vividly described. One felt that there were some of them, like the two that I mentioned, that could have been the stars of their own narrative.

  2. The fact that this is a belly laugh and you give it 5 stars, makes me really curious! I also love the period of time it takes place in. ADDED! To my never ending TBR :)

  3. James McBride is a favorite author of mine. My husband finished this one just the other day and demanded that I read it. I will!


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