Back in 2013 I attended a reading by James McBride at the North Carolina Literary Festival. I had never heard of him before. But I got a signed copy of The Good Lord Bird and was blown away by it. It was an incredibly funny historical novel about a much larger than life version of the abolitionist John Brown narrated by a young boy named Onion who is disguised as a girl for the bulk of the novel. Like the great comic novels it had very heavy themes: slavery and the history of race in America most prominently. And yet its light touch made the whole thing completely enjoyable while still forcing the reader to confront those issues. I later read his memoir, The Color of Water and his biography of James Brown, both of which I enjoyed, though not nearly as much as The Good Lord Bird. Deacon King Kong, while set in a completely different time and place, 1969 New York, is equally funny and equally concerned with the same heavy themes as the previous novel, and pulls the balance off as well as its predecessor.
Deacon King Kong is equal parts a crime novel, a comic novel and a social novel that examines the life of a community. It pulls off all three genres and makes it look easy. The deacon whose behind-his-back nickname provides the book’s title, is more commonly known to the residents of the project he lives in as Sportcoat. In the first two pages Sportcoat gets drunk and shoots a drug dealer called Deems who he used to coach in baseball, but who has embraced a violent life of crime. Deems survives, but just. This event galvanizes the community, a group comprised largely of aging transplants from various southern cities. In an interview around a decade or so ago, Dennis Lehane said (I’m paraphrasing) that the great social novels of the past had largely moved over to the crime genre after postmodernism and the Updike/Roth brand of mainstream literary novels had taken over. This seems true of Lehane’s work as well as his fellow The Wire writers’ room compatriots like Richard Price and George Pelecanos. The Wire isn’t a bad comparison point for the crime elements of this novel. The machinations of drug dealers both on the lower and higher ends of the hierarchy, investigating cops, smugglers at the docks and the bystanders of various degrees of innocence are all present in both, though the community of bystanders takes a much larger role here. And Deacon King Kong celebrates the city of New York even as it criticizes in a similar way to The Wire’s treatment of Baltimore. The ways that racism is baked into the system and the lives that people build within that system, the little ways that find some joy in the midst of the situation they’re in is incredibly moving.
But, while The Wire definitely has some jokes, Deacon King Kong is a full out comedy embedded in the crime story. The humor rises from the community and the way the characters who have known each other for so long interact. Sportcoat’s a tragicomic figure; his alcoholism has completely subsumed him in the aftermath of his wife’s death a couple years before the beginning of this story. He is in a lot of ways a pitiable character, but in McBride’s hands, the humor that is born out of that is stunning. There is a slapstick quality to some of it as well. A would-be assassin runs into such trouble taking out his targets that I was reminded of Patrolman Mancuso from A Confederacy of Dunces and Sportcoat himself seems like a drunken M. Hulot from Jaques Tati movies.
The beauty of the novel is in the way the crime, the humor and the social critique blossom out of the incredible cast of characters that form an absolutely convincing community. It would be easy for this to turn into a dour morality tale or for the comic tone to make a mockery of the more serious elements. But McBride’s masterful prose and grasp of character allows the novel to embrace both the ugliness and joy of life in equal measure. In its exploration of a community over a couple generations (and in its drunken tragicomedy) it reminded me a little of Wendell Berry’s Port Williams Membership novels. The ending is hopeful. Here someone might quibble that it is unreasonably so, but I think it’s more an expression of McBride’s humanistic approach to the religion of his characters, that both critiques the church’s role in supporting systemic racism and allows it’s characters to take some comfort in it. McBride doesn’t pretend it’s a simple situation. It works incredibly well for me. I will be rereading this at some point, and this has made me really want to revisit The Good Lord Bird as well.