Cover Image: Deacon King Kong

Deacon King Kong

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Member Reviews

This novel brings you in with a gunshot and keeps you there, in the world of a housing project in 1969 Brooklyn, with vivid storytelling and truly unforgettable characters. We meet Sportcoat as he inexplicably shoots his one time protege and current neighborhood heroin dealer, Deems in the middle of the shared plaza in the Cause housing project. We then follow Sportcoat, alcoholic, widower, handyman, immigrant, and deacon at the Five Ends church as his alcohol addled mind recalls his life in the Cause district, his long departed wife Hettie, and unwittingly sets off a turf war between the established Italian crime syndicate and the burgeoning drug trade within the projects in a NYC on the brink of total change. Each chapter is told from the different perspectives of residents in the Cause district, all with their own version of events, and their own pasts to contend with and desired futures.

It's difficult to pinpoint what is the best aspect of this book because from the riveting plot, the vividly presented setting, the indelible characters, the extremely relevant social issues discussed, the compelling mystery at the heart of the book, the heartbreaking nostalgia of times past, the often harrowing stories of life in a housing project...there is a mastery in this novel that ties all of those things together to tell this story. It is one of those rare novels that makes you want to begin all over again after finishing. It is one of the best books I've read so far this year. It is one of the best books I've read...ever.
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I really enjoyed this book a lot. The characters were clever and engaging, and getting to spend time with them was a treat. I liked the writing too - it was descriptive without ever veering into flowery territory, and I would certainly be interested in reading more work by this author. The cover is great too!
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Lord save us all from the book hype machine. 

Deacon King Kong was charming and clever, and McBride’s chops are a writer are valid, but this book was way, way overhyped. 

I had lofty expectations for this after reading loads of glowing reviews and endorsements, but for me it was...just ok.

The humor is notable and the plot is structurally interesting (or at least had the potential to be) but on the whole it’s a slow read (and not in a good way), too dialogue driven, and largely fails to engage. 

I kept waiting for all of the chattiness of the prose to culminate in something meaningful, but the book just never got there.
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I'm going to cheat on this one and recommend that people interested in this book read Junot Diaz's review in the 29 February NY Times. I thought it was exactly right on all points (and much better written than anything I might have written). Feel free to skip what I'm about to say. Your time will be much better spent reading "Deacon King Kong."

"Deacon" has the texture of folklore and fable mixed with the unexpected rhythms of jazz and the noisy streets of late 1960s Brooklyn, a community late in the transition from merely poor to drug-ridden and ravaged. The language soars, and the characters... damn, they're wonderful! Hot Sausage, Sister Gee, Soup, Bunch Moon, Miss Izi, Bum-Bum, Joaquin whose "whose good looks were squeezed into a head that resembled a ski jump in that the back of his head was flat as a pancake, and the top of his head sloped downward like a ski slope, thus his childhood nickname, 'Salto,' or 'jump' in Spanish." -- not to mention the Irish cop, the Italian gangster and his mom the gardener, the Governor. And Jesus's Cheese. And the yearly parade of ants. (You'll figure it out. Just writing this makes me want to read the book again.)

There are mysteries and twists, turns, murder plots, missing treasure, broad comic strokes and set-pieces, promises broken... or not so much broken as abandoned because life had different plans for the promise-maker.

Deacon King Kong himself was born Cuffy Jasper Lambkin (aka Sportscoat), deacon in his church and frequent imbiber in a home-distilled liquor called King Kong. From the very beginning, his was a life touched by, um, challenge: The fact is, unbeknownst to the residents of the Cause, the death of Cuffy Jasper Lambkin -- which was Sportcoat's real name -- had been predicted long before he arrived at the Cause Houses. When he was slapped to life back in Possum Point, South Carolina, seventy-one years before, the midwife who delivered him watched in horror as a bird flew through an open window and fluttered over the baby's head, then flew out again, a bad sign. She announced, "He's gonna be an idiot," handed him to his mother, and vanished, moving to Washington, DC, where she married a plumber and never delivered another baby again.

Young Cuffy's childhood went downhill from there. I'll leave it here so readers can have the pleasure of hearing the boy's splendid sorrows themselves -- save to give a special nod (or shake of the head) to his stepmother, who often recommended he go play at Sassafras Mountain, two hundred fifty-eight miles distant, and jump off the top naked.

I loved the simple humanity of the characters. The long, energetic, love-filled conversations Sportscoat has with his dead wife, Hettie: I ain't talking to Hettie's ghost. It's a nag that's bothering me, Sausage. What I'm talking to is a nag. A nag ain't no ghost. It's a mojo.  The longing Officer Potts unexpectedly finds himself feeling for Sister Gee, who longs herself to fill the emptiness in her life. And that the gangster known as The Elephant (who refuses to get into the drug running that's destroying communities and lives) feels for the "country girl" he hasn't met yet. The hope the characters find in their religion, and the release they find in their drink.

A motif that runs through the lives of all the main characters -- the wish held deeply in their souls that they could live a different life from the one they had. So much tenderness and love.

And a clear-eyed vision of the harsh realities of poverty and race in New York. Just a taste: Life in the Cause would lurch forward as it always did. You worked, slaved, fought off the rats, the mice, the roaches, the ants, the Housing Authority, the cops, the muggers, and now the drug dealers. You live a life of disappointment and suffering, of too-hot summers and too-cold winters, surviving in apartments with crummy stoves that didn't work and windows that didn't open and toilets that didn't flush and lead paint that flecked off the walls and poisoned your children, living in awful, dreary apartments built to house Italians who came to America to work the docks, which had emptied of boats, ships, tankers, dreams, money, and opportunity the moment the colored and the Latinos arrived. And still New York blamed you for all its problems. And who can you blame? You were the one who chose to live here, in this hard town with its hard people, the financial capital of the world, land of opportunity for the white man and a tundra of spent dreams and empty promises for anyone else stupid enough to believe the hype.

And lest I leave my reader with the wrong impression, "Deacon King Kong" is anything but dark. The darkness is there, along with the violence and pain and deprivation that everyone knows is coming with the drug trade. But "Deacon"'s spirit is filled with light and love, humor (lots of humor!) and affirmation. Every once in a while there's a glimmer of hope. Just a blip on the horizon, a whack on the nose of the giant that set him back on his heels or to the canvas, something that said, "Guess what, you so-and-so, I am God's child. And I. Am. Still. Here."

Read it. Days after you're done, the book will still be with you.
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Deacon King Kong is the story of a shooting in a housing project in New York in 1969. Sportcoat, or Deacon King Kong, walks up to the local drug dealer one morning and shoots him, we don't know why and he does not remember doing it. From there the story starts to interweave Sportcoat's friends, his dead wife, the drug dealers boss, a hitman, a local shipyard owner, and an Irish bagel shop owner (just to name a few) along with a missing box, no make that two missing boxes, baseball, and some Colombian ants. This is a story about how sometimes doing something good for a stranger can reap great benefits for others. 

I really enjoyed this book although I spend way too much time trying to following timelines and ages in my head. It never seemed to add up correctly but I got over it. The story pulled me in and I just wanted to know what would happen next.
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I loved this book! "Deacon King Kong" opens with an older man failing to shoot a younger man in a crowded city square. This shocking event kicks off the story, but the book is really more about all of the characters living in a Brooklyn neighborhood in 1969. The title refers to Sportcoat, and he is one of the main characters, but the novel also features the criminals, police, church members, and family that all have long histories with each other. There is a lot of humor in the book, but some very poignant moments, too. Every character is multi-faceted and their actions are often unexpected. I loved meeting all of these characters.
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This is the first of James McBride's books I've read but it certainly won't be the last. What a skilled writer. I felt like I was right there watching the daily activities at the flagpole of the Cause Housing Project in 1969 when Deacon King Kong aka Sportcoat shot Deems, a 19-year old heroin dealer. Deems survives although his ear is nearly severed and Deacon, a confirmed elderly alcoholic, doesn't even remember shooting him.

While Deacon's friends try to protect him from retaliation by Deems and his drug posse, Deacon doesn't live in fear. Rather, he lives in the past convinced that he can once again coach Deems in baseball and steer him from a life of crime.

The nearby church where Sportcoat serves as deacon is home to a wide variety of friends and acquaintances who make Sportcoat's plight their own. With a wide cast of interesting characters from neighborhood Italians, police officers, and rival drug dealers it's easy for readers to feel they're part of the Cause experience. Highly recommended.

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review and I'm happy to have discovered a new favorite writer. His students at NYU are surely fortunate to have a master story teller guiding them.
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This book and everything that bright students will enjoy reading. Very distinctive voice, compelling characters, intricate, engaging plot, insight into urban culture that will be eyeopening to some and very relatable to others. It’s certainly wouldn’t pay for every student but it’s perfect for a portion of a student population looking for a really great contemporary urban voice.
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I struggled to engage with the characters in the beginning.  Everyone had a nickname that was randomly earned and not necessarily memorable.  Plus the Black patois was difficult to get an ear for at first.  And then I put the book down for a couple of days which was a mistake because I had to backtrack to get a foothold in the story, but it was oh so worth it because once the characters were sorted, it was an outrageous, delightful and complex romp.  

I would call this a realistic fantasy that’s placed in the projects of the Bronx in 1969, a crossroads year in America after all the upheaval of 1968.  McBride deftly braids in history of Southern connections along with race relations with other ethnic groups in NYC. The old timers still lived by their word and alcohol was the addiction de jour, but heroin was rapidly overwhelming the projects, destroying the families and breaking the backbone of the traditional Black churches.  

Deacon King Kong is a 71-year-old alcoholic known as Sportcoat and who is a deacon in the Five Corners Church.  He has a heart of gold but his intentions get a little muddy after he tipples with his best friend Hot Sausage.  Their beverage of choice is King Kong, a speciality cooked up by Sausage and available in the basement of building 9.  Sportcoat recently lost his wife Hettie who comes back to visit from time to time.  People think he’s a crazy drunk, talking to himself, but he is talking to Hettie, or rather talking back to Hettie, as they fall into the habit of arguing.  Despite of his temporary lapses of memory, he is our Don Quixote and the man to keep your eye on.

You have to swallow disbelief as the events careen on the edge of reality, but there’s plenty of humor and some LOL moments dished out as well.  This is perfect for some COVID distraction reading - enjoy!
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Deacon King Kong is chock-a-block with colorful, interesting characters, riveting action, and great writing.  The setting of the projects of New York City at the dawn of the crack epidemic was spot on.  The myriad of characters, their histories, their personal lives and struggles made this novel a compelling read. You don't need a personal connection to NYC to feel personally invested in the action, suspense, violence, and humor steeping in each chapter.  In the end, it was just right, just enough.
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James McBride’s Deacon King Kong takes place in 1969 around a housing project in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn that bustles with activity. On any given day, there might be live salsa music (courtesy of Joaquin y Los Soñadores), heroin deals, baseball games, cigarette smuggling (at some nearby docks), undercover cop snooping and whatever other kind of carrying on you can imagine. Responsible for all the wildness and noise is a diverse cast of mobsters, drunks, players and preachers, each waist deep in complicated, near-absurd backstory. These dozens of characters, distinctly individual yet overwhelmingly interconnected in daily life and history, stutter step at the story’s center to elucidate its ancient wisdom of understanding and redemption.

It begins with a shooting: aging alcoholic Sportcoat (also the title’s Deacon King Kong) has blown off the ear of successful drug dealer Deems Clemens, whose resulting injuries leave him bed-ridden for the bulk of the novel. Problem is, Sportcoat has no memory of shooting Deems and generally seems unstable: he keeps talking about a baseball game, regularly has lengthy conversations with his deceased wife and flat-out refuses to leave town, even though an enforcer (sent, of course, by Deems’ supplier) is looking to mess him up. Even though the situation is truly dangerous, hilarious hijinks ensue, as Sportcoat always manages to just miss getting cut or beat.

Meanwhile, just a few blocks over, middle-aged mobster Thomas Elefante, known simply as the Elephant, stumbles across an old friend of his father’s, The Governor, with a tip about a hidden bit of Roman Catholic treasure that he can sell for millions. This enormous amount of money represents a way out of the crime world for the lonely Elephant, who hardly seems aware of his African-American neighbors until he realizes that the valuable relic’s past, his deceased father’s prison time and the history of Five Ends Baptist Church (where Sportcoat is a deacon) are tightly interlocked. The novel investigates these various parts, which are opposed on the surface yet complementary once excavated, to consider possibilities for real respect across racial and cultural lines.

One potential bridge originates in Irish-American policeman Sergeant Potts, who arrives at Five Ends to get information on Sportcoat but ends up falling for pastor’s wife Sister Gee, who seems to reciprocate his feelings. Constructing such a bridge is no easy task: Prejudices, pressure and a whole lot of resulting suspicion threaten to set fire to its skeleton as soon as there’s any indication of progress. Still, there’s comedy in failure, too, highlighted by a style that’s heavy on nicknames spoken in sentences packed with slang and personal reference. One of the book’s recurring jokes is that everybody’s always calling someone by a different name, depending on their ethnicity and age. And no one can quite remember all the names, either: Sportcoat, for instance, ends up getting labeled Suit Jacket, Sport Jacket, the Deacon and Thelonius Ellis, even though his real name is Cuffy Jasper Lambkin.

The book’s three major strands (involving Sportcoat, Elephant, Potts), plus a few smaller ones, stretch deep into the past to reveal a pre-gentrified Brooklyn and, by extension, an America of not only deeply rooted discrimination but also truly transformative interaction (based in traditions of honesty, kindness and generosity). The latter makes Deacon King Kong a hopeful novel, and such optimism is all the more remarkable for its being set in the year following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

But does the novel present hope as a real possibility for today? 1969’s position between the togetherness-fueled 1960s and the chaos-spiked 1970s is certainly precarious, and McBride hints that the progression of time will do Red Hook no favors. One of the novel’s tastier strings involves a bunch of gourmet cheese, which regularly shows up at the Cause housing projects, courtesy of the Elefante family. The novel proclaims, “There had never been so much cheese in the Cause District. And, sadly, there never would be cheese there again.”

The loss of cheese, it turns out, is the loss of history – in part because we cheese eaters, who gather the past in ourselves, must age and die. Today’s 100-year-olds are babies of the Roaring Twenties, but the novel’s 108-year old Sister Paul – who, not to spoil it, gathers the story’s worlds together like wrinkles gather skin – sends us all the way back to 1861. We can read books and articles (and historical novels, like McBride’s National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird) about those days now, but to interact with someone who lived through them is another thing altogether. What remains with readers upon the book’s conclusion is a sense of history as alive in people, woven together, at its best, in the clarity and wonderment of love.
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Having loved The Good Lord Bird (2013), James McBride’s previous novel with an intriguing title, I jumped at the chance to read Deacon King Kong.  Largely revolving around Brooklyn housing project residents and members of the neighboring Five Ends Baptist Church members, this is the author’s most contemporary novel to date.    Yet, like earlier novels set in pre-Civil War days or World War II, Deacon King Kong also dramatizes a critical time in history, the impending danger of drugs in the community.

Peopled with colorful characters bearing nicknames such as Sportcoat, Pudgy Fingers, Hot Sausage, Beanie, and Lightbulb, their Puerto Rican and Dominican neighbors, drug dealers and hit men, Irish cops and Irish and Italian ex-cons and gangsters,  the book opens with a drunken church deacon shooting nineteen-year-old drug dealer Deems Clemens by the community flagpole.  Although the elderly deacon, who regularly carries on conversations with his dead wife Hettie, does not remember shooting, friends warn him that Deems will exact revenge—that the deacon is “a dead man.”

Learn how Sportcoat also became known as Deacon King Kong.  Solve the mystery of Jesus’s cheese.  Join the search for Five End Baptist Church’s Christmas fund that went missing when Sportcoat’s wife Hettie died and for an ancient carving, the Venus of Willendorf.  Sit on the edge of your seat waiting for the drug war to break out.  Smile as at the budding of a few unlikely romances.  Prepare to be surprised as you begin to understand and even to like some seemingly unlikeable characters. 

My thanks to Riverside Books, NetGalley, and James McBride for an Advance Reader Copy of this complex, entertaining, heartfelt, and deeply humane novel.  Out of people the wealthy side of New York would regard as the dregs of humanity, McBride has created a touching, artful, and memorable story.
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What a fantastic book! This had everything (and I mean EVERYTHING)!   I could nit put it down. Well written and FUN! Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher!
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“There were a lot of theories floating around the projects as to why old Sportcoat – a wiry, laughing, brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed, and drank his way through the Cause Houses for a good part of his seventy-one years – shot the most ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen.”

In Brooklyn, New York in the late 1960s Cuffy Lambkin (commonly known as Sportcoat), a deacon of the Five Ends Baptist Church, shot 19 year old drug dealer Deems Clemens. Sportcoat had no recollection of having done this, since he was usually at least a bit tipsy - his preferred drink was home made hooch called King Kong. Unfortunately for Sportcoat, there were many witnesses to the shooting. What follows is a story that is part mystery, part shaggy dog story that is often very funny and is always entirely wonderful. 

Many of the characters live in a Housing project called Cause Houses.  The project is overseen by the Housing Authority honchos “...who did not like their afternoon naps disturbed with minor complaints about ants, toilets, murders, child molestation, rape, heatless apartments, and lead paint that shrunk children’s brains to the size of a full-grown pea in one of their Brooklyn locations, unless they wanted a new home sleeping on a bench at the Port Authority bus terminal.”

There are cops and mobsters longing for love, a hidden object of great value, an impending drug war, two inept assassins, an unexplained cheese shipment and a collection of colorful characters. I loved the way the author intertwined the stories of the people whose lives centered around Five Ends and the local mobsters. When one of the mobsters visits 104 year old church lady Sister Paul, she tells him “I’ve been around the sun one hundred and four whole times, and nobody’s explained nothing to me. I read the book on not being explained to. That’s called being an old colored woman, sir.” Even Sportcoat’s dead wife Hettie plays a role. I also learned a new expression that I am sure I’ll find useful: “your cheese has slipped off your cracker”. I loved this book. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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Deacon King Kong is great!  The writing is wonderful, the characters come alive on the page, the story is relevant and interesting.  It's also laugh out loud funny.  Mr. McBride is an extremely talented writer.  You can really feel NYC in the sixties.  Please don't miss this amazing book.
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DEACON KING KONG-an interesting read by James McBride. Setting is a project in Brooklyn in the late 60s.At times a crime novel(begins with an attempted murder) , at times a comedy( found myself laughing hysterically at times)and at times a serious look at the sociological problems of the projects and racism-which still exist today.
The names -and nicknames-of the characters can be confusing at times, and I will confess to being a bit lost in the first half of the book.The interactions between the characters-and not just the main protagonists are funny, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable-personally, I felt that this kept the book “ going”.
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Many thanks to you for this gifted copy of James McBride’s novel, Deacon King Kong. ⁣
I am kicking myself in the behind because McBride is an author I’ve been sitting on way too long and now that I’m a little over half way through this book, I want more of his works. His prose are beautifully written and I am absolutely loving the multicultural characters, Puerto Rican’s, Italians and Haitians just to name a few. ⁣
Look I’m not from New York, but McBride’s vivid description puts you front and center of all the hustle and bustle of the city. This book is comical and absolutely worth the read. ⁣
Thanks again Riverhead, I have now added The Color of Water as my next McBride read. ⁣
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Deacon King Kong is a crime novel but one like you’ve not read before. Neither  have most pictured the projects of New York as McBride so colorfully describes them. The story did take longer than usual to get onto as the characters where introduced. Each with their memorable nick names and quirky personalities. I came  away with such an attachment to the community, beginning with Sport Coat the deacon and lovable drunk. Who happens to shoot the town drug dealer Deems and swears he doesn’t remember a thing. I fell in love with the church and each of its members too. In addition to a murder mystery it’s a funny and heartwarming story a community that becomes family.
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“They saw what she saw, she realized. She read it in their faces. They would never win. The game was fixed. The villains would succeed. The heroes would die. The sight of Beanie's mother howling at her son's coffin would haunt them all in the next few days. Next week, or next month some time, some other mother would take her place, howling her grief. And another after that....But then, she thought, every once in a while there's a glimmer of hope. Just a blip on the horizon, a whack on the nose of the giant that set him back on his heels or to the canvas.”⁣
Every now and then a book comes along that just seeps into your soul.... you lose yourself among the pages, and become so engrossed in the characters' lives and their community that you find yourself thinking about them long after you have turned the final page. From the opening scene where the elderly, drunken Deacon shoots the local drug dealer in broad day light, to the hunt for the mysterious, buried "bar of soap" and the identity of who delivers the "Jesus cheese", the characters of The Elephant, Sport Coat, Deems and Hot Sausage have stayed with me even though I read the final sentence of this spectacular epic almost two weeks ago.⁣
Parts of this story are laugh out loud hilarious and then others are so profound it's as if Sister Gee herself has reached out and slapped you hard across the face to ensure that you are truly seeing what is taking place in The Cause. The extensive cast of characters walk the line between darkness and light and what ensues is a stunning mix of grief, friendship and grace. Thank you so much to Riverhead Books for providing an arc through Netgalley. This is one of my top reads of 2020 so run out and I can not rave about it enough.
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I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

The novel is confusing at first, but the plots are tied together at the end of the book.  There are multiple storylines that converge.   Sportcoat is a drunk, a deacon, and a handyman.   He has a good heart and is better to his wife's ghost than he was to her in life.  Through his work in his church and multiple odd jobs, Sportcoat is at the center of business with drug dealers and mobsters.  Even though he runs with a wild crowd, his heart remains pure.
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