The Tippling Point

Deacon King Kong: A Novel BY James McBride. New York: Riverhead Books. 384 pages. $28.

The cover of Deacon King Kong: A Novel

Deacon King Kong (Riverhead, $28) is a warm-blooded free-for-all, a donnybrook, a rumpus, what in baseball lingo would be called a “rhubarb.” And, as it happens, baseball, a steadfast metaphor for democratic ideals, plays a marginal role in James McBride’s bountiful and compassionate comedy of errors, bloopers, and near misses. The generosity of detail and range of emotional life infused in McBride’s vision of working-class Brooklyn at the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s are more characteristic of a nineteenth-century novel than of its counterparts in the twenty-first. And McBride is so adroit at manipulating his characters through myriad complications that there will likely be readers who mistake Deacon King Kong’s high spirits and comedic invention for a lack of whatever they believe to be “seriousness.” That’s the risk with farce: The better it’s executed, the easier it looks—until you try doing it yourself.

The “humorous story,” as Mark Twain wrote of it in his 1897 essay “How to Tell a Story,” is “strictly a work of art,” and a “high and delicate art” at that. Its effectiveness, Twain suggested, depends on how “gravely” the story is told. McBride, who showed in his award-winning antebellum picaresque epic The Good Lord Bird (2013) how much he has learned from Old Sam Clemens, raises his ruckus at the jump, and with the proper faux gravitas: On King Kong’s first page, we learn that on an overcast afternoon in September 1969, Cuffy Lambkin, a seventy-one-year-old, compulsively hard-drinking, habitually laid-back and lovable church deacon best known to his neighborhood coinhabitants as “Sportcoat,” “marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects . . . stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens and pulled the trigger.” (Something, by the by, about the deadpan humor of this setup makes one wonder whether Deems Clemens’s last name is a sneaky homage on McBride’s part to Old Sam. But we’re going to leave it at that and move on.)

The shooting leaves Deems without his right ear. Meanwhile, everybody who witnessed the incident wonders what madness has possessed Sportcoat to shave years off his already narrow life expectancy by openly assaulting an ill-tempered thug who “went from being a cute pain in the ass and the best baseball player the projects had ever seen to a dreadful, poison-selling murderous meathead with all the appeal of a cyclops.” Still, despite the threat of mayhem looming behind this impromptu act of street violence, McBride’s narrative voice—dry-witted, wryly judgmental, but suffused with equanimity toward human folly—lets the reader know that this isn’t going to be one of those ham-fisted street-crime melodramas with double-digit body counts and pontifications about ghetto life.

Indeed, one of Deacon King Kong’s sustained pleasures comes in watching its author juke, dodge, and slip free from solemnity or tragedy, much in the same manner that Sportcoat keeps avoiding the violent retribution everybody anticipates, either through dumb luck or the intervention of his best friend, Hot Sausage, who tends the boiler room in one of the project’s buildings. (“Is your cheese done slid off your cracker, Sport?” Sausage asks at one point.) It’s not easy to protect Sportcoat, in part because he is too “pie-eyed” and “addled” to remember shooting Deems in the first place, a delusion that may in part be blamed on the home-brewed alcoholic concoction, “King Kong,” that gives the novel its title and Sportcoat his fortification. “I didn’t shoot [Deems] to my recollection,” he insists to Sausage. “Even if I did it’s only ’cause I wanted him to go back to pitching baseball. . . . I got only one good ear myself. A man can still pitch with one ear.” He is also prone to having conversations with his late wife, Hettie, and doesn’t seem to care much that she doesn’t respond to his questions about the day of the week or to such non sequiturs as: “I say the note is due! I say bring the hens! I say a poke and a choke, Hettie. I say God only knows when! Brace!”

Martin Wong, Stanton Near Forsyth Street, 1983, acrylic on canvas, 48 × 64". Courtesy the Estate of Martin Wong and P·P·O·W, New York
Martin Wong, Stanton Near Forsyth Street, 1983, acrylic on canvas, 48 × 64". Courtesy the Estate of Martin Wong and P·P·O·W, New York

What was it Otto von Bismarck once said about God having “a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America”? You won’t find Otto saying it here, but it’s likely that Sausage and those looking for Sportcoat are thinking it, whether it’s the deeply aggrieved Deems and his posse, grimly combing the streets for the crazy old bird who shot his ear off; Bunch Moon, a neighborhood crime kingpin who sends out one of his goons to find and maim, without “icing,” Sportcoat; or NYPD sergeant Kevin “Potts” Mullen, an elderly Irishman who behaves less like the beat cop he is now and more like the detective he used to be. Potts has seen too much misery and senselessness in his career to allow Sportcoat’s pursuers to catch up with him, and he says as much to Sister Gee, an elegant, even-tempered, and circumspect churchwoman whom he begs for help in finding Sportcoat or stopping Deems. Though she finds “something large inside him,” Sister Gee can only reply, in sadness, “Let it roll as it will then.”

Though said in resignation, Sister’s line could serve as Deacon King Kong’s subtitle, as events prove too overpowering for anybody to control, not even Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a forty-five-year-old bachelor whose power as Mob boss for the borough far exceeds that of Bunch Moon and others with shorter tempers and itchier trigger fingers. While relatively unconcerned with matters related to the “Cause” shooting beyond whatever chaos threatens his business interests (“Drugs,” he thinks to himself ruefully. “Fucking Drugs”), Elefante finds himself, against his better judgment, drawn in to a different but not altogether unrelated mystery involving Driscoll Sturgess, an elderly Irishman who materializes as if from nowhere in Elefante’s yard to inform him of an item “worth a lot of crisps” that he won’t identify but seeks to retrieve. “You can have it. You can keep it. Or sell it. Or sell it and give me a little piece if you want, and keep the rest for yourself. However you like.” This enigmatic dialogue takes place in the Elephant’s garden, which his elderly mother tends every Wednesday with the help of Sportcoat.

Most of the major characters—Sportcoat, Deems, Potts, the Elephant, his mother, and others—are in a paradoxical manner linked by isolation or, at best, detachment from both their surroundings and their better selves. Theirs is the kind of loneliness that can be dispelled only by the sense of community McBride exalts in this book. Such connections are made manifest in set pieces like an outdoor dance party at which salsa musicians play and residents dance as if oblivious to the looming threat of violence. It’s here that we’re introduced to a sweet-natured six-foot-ten prodigal son of the Cause projects named Soup Lopez, who returns home as a Nation of Islam member. Thanks to Soup and the rest of the neighborhood, Sportcoat is able to hang out in plain sight at these festivities, even after a melee breaks out. Soup hurls a bottle and boinks Bunch’s button man Earl into unconsciousness just before Earl can reach Sportcoat with a knife.

And I haven’t even mentioned Haroldeen the Death Queen, a gorgeous executioner with a quick and deadly way with a gun who’s been hired by Bunch to take care of both Deems and Sportcoat. She’s got dreams, too. She wants to study accounting in college.

The whole thing sounds so outrageous, even for the year-of-the-improbable that was 1969 (the Mets, the moon, Woodstock, etcetera), that one might think McBride was engaged in magical realism. At one point, Sportcoat does finally hear back from Hettie’s ghost, but even this scene remains plausible, thanks to the hard and bitter truths she lays down on him, notably: “Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. The lies they tell each other sound better to them than the truth does when it comes out of our mouths.”

Hettie’s message from the Great Beyond shouldn’t be taken as the final word in a novel as spacious and warm and multilayered as this. You can think of Dickens, Thackeray, even the citified slapstick of Gogol and Balzac when discerning Deacon King Kong’s literary ancestry. My own thoughts wandered more toward film, most especially Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterwork The Rules of the Game, which in more contained and more rural surroundings involved people whose motives weren’t always clearly defined, morally sound, or well thought out. As I read McBride’s novel, I thought of what Renoir insisted was the main point of his film: Everybody has their reasons—even, I would add, when reason fails. I like to think Renoir, and for that matter Dickens, would understand Sister Gee’s prescription to let things roll as they will. Many readers will argue that the present day’s imperatives won’t permit such thinking. Sometimes, they’ll say, you have to force things to happen—even if it’s as crazy as shooting a drug dealer’s ear off and then forgetting that it happened.

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Brooklyn.