Cover Image: Deacon King Kong

Deacon King Kong

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Member Reviews

So funny and witty.  James McBride doesn't disappoint with this story and cast of kooky characters.  Hysterical. These characters will stick with me for a long time.
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Deacon King Kong is a wild ride of a book, particularly given that almost all its action takes place within a single city block. It's 1969 and things are changing at the Causeway Housing Projects in Brooklyn. There are the old-timers who meet beside the flag pole every morning for coffee and gossip, then there are drug dealer Deem Clemons and his "associates" and customers, who move into that same space around lunch time. The book opens with perpetually drunk Sportcoat, one of the old timers who coached the baseball team back when the projects had baseball, shooting off Clemons' ear. Afterwards, Sportcoat has no idea why he did this—in fact, he doesn't remember doing it at all.

From this one action, the story expands outward, still in the same location, but pulling in an increasingly varied group of characters: old-timers from the South, Haiti, and Puerto Rico; the younger, drug-involved crowd; some of the few Italians who still live in this neighborhood where they once were the majority; and higher-level dealers and gangsters. James McBride deftly balances drama and comedy. Sportcoat's action resonates upwards and the stakes are high, but we are nonetheless entertained by the foibles of the different characters, laughing with (and at) them as the drama plays out.

Deacon King Kong is one of those books that begins well and becomes increasingly engaging as one moves through it, becoming a real can't-put-it-down tale. McBride has written a powerful work that at first seems small in scale, but that actually has a vast, and humane, perspective. Keep your eyes out for this title, which will be released in early March, 2020.

I received a free electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. The Opinions are my own.
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James McBride does not disappoint with lyrical language and fast paced movement from page one. The overlapping stories and perspectives give a colorful portrait of a community in the 1960s—starting with a violent act by a community vagabond, Sportcoat.
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In a housing project in 1969 New York, everyone knows Deacon Sportcoat as a drunk but fairly reliable old man who would never hurt a fly. But one day, Sportcoat marches up to a teenage drug dealer and shoots him, surprising everyone, including himself. The story that unfolds is told through an engaging and unexpected web of community, vice, and strange connections.

This book is a bit of a slow burn; I spent a good chunk of it wondering exactly where it was taking me. It's hard to describe this book, but it's absolutely worth the journey. The vibrant community is full of characters that jump off the page. Suggested food pairing: some nice, expensive, Italian cheese.
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Thank you, James McBride for “Deacon King Kong”. What a wonderful read!

Where to start? The story is centered around a public housing project in Brooklyn. Most action takes place in 1969. Public Housing was originally built for those dealing with the lack of affordable housing post World War 2 and Korea. This created a multi-cultural environment of poor, working class Europeans, displaced Jews and some Hispanics. This was the time when many of the original tenants began moving out to Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, New Jersey and other NYC suburbs. In their place, African Americans who were part of the Great Migration from Southern US poverty were moving north. They moved into the abandoned Public Housing. The New York City Housing Authority, New York State and the newly created US Department of Housing and Urban Development decided that they did not need to prioritize maintenance of Public Housing. Thus began the  of “The Projects” to the sorry state of violence and despair that we know so well.

The people that were thrown together into this environment did the best they could to scratch out a day-to-day existence. They shared what little they had. They helped where they could. They congregated around places of communion and worship, even if it was just a flagpole or the walls of a hoped-to-be church. They had children and, as always, hoped that their children would have the talent or fortune to break the cycle of poverty. 

Poverty stricken people are always prey to illegal activity. They have an, at best, uneasy relationship with law enforcement and the courts. They are prone to long prison sentences that further erode their emerging families. In addition to the usual temptations of alcohol, gambling, smuggling, and sex trafficking, the late 60’s added the evil of heroin. As ever it is the matriarchy that tries to hold it all together.

James McBride knows all this to the bone and crafts a story that is part historical fiction, part mystery/crime novel, part magical realism. There are lots of characters all with attributes that unfold in layers revealing much more than meets the eye. Sad, but wonderful in every way. And maybe above all enormously funny throughout with people reveling their wit and profound understanding of life throughout.

Thank you Riverhead and NetGalley for the eArc.
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Loved this novel. The writing is fabulous and the plot fun and twisty. But, the thing that makes this book sing is the amazing characters. I couldn’t put it down.
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This story is full of beautifully developed characters each with their own arc that blend to create Deacon King Kong the latest novel from James McBride. 

Set in 60s New York in the Cause housing project that boarders the harbor and Five Ends Church, a drunk, elderly neighborhood man by the name of Sportcoat shakes things up when he shoots Deems, the neighborhood dealer, in broad daylight. What follows is the why and WTF?!? As the story unfolds and explores the elaborate backgrounds of the many characters in and around the neighborhood, you begin to see how each effects the other. 

I laughed out loud a great deal as this reminded me of the neighborhood I grew up in. I felt like I was watching a mashup episode of Amen, 227, The Sopranos & Good Times. My favorite characters changed with each plot twist which kept me entertained until the very end. 

Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC.
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James McBride is showing his love here for the black church, though some may find his treatment as lacking in love, as the Five Ends Baptist Church in the Cause House projects in Brooklyn, NY is the center of this novel of love and intrigue. 

Deacon Sportcoat is derisively referred to as Deacon King Kong after the homemade hooch made by his friend, Rufus. Obviously being a frequent imbiber of the liquor had earned him this moniker. Sportcoat was never fond of the name, but that never stopped him from overindulging.

With characters such as Hot Sausage, Sister Gee, Sister Bum Bum, Pudgy Fingers, and others, the zaniness of the goings-on is endearing to readers. The church is not perfect and neither is their favorite deacon, Sportcoat. 

"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." Sportcoat cleaned the church two days per week but had other jobs around the Cause houses. When Sportcoat shoots the local drug dealer, everyone fears for Sportcoat's life. 

He remains unfazed. Sportcoat feels like he has established enough of a rapport with Deems Clemons (the local drug dealer) that should give him some latitude. How will this play out? There is a mini side plot going on in the novel, and though it adds some mystery I didn't think it was entirely necessary and serves as a minor irritant. McBride’s prose is keen and snappy keeping the action humming and doesn't allow the irritant to become a full out distraction. The way McBride allows this to unfold is gorgeous, heartening in its denouement. This was thoroughly enjoyable and sure to be an early 2020 favorite. Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Random House for providing an advanced DRC. Book drops March 3, 2020.
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Now THIS is a story: astonishing, moving, brutal, and lovely. Please read it.

Any other words I could offer would be insufficient.
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Brooklyn 1969.  A housing project with a view of the Statue of Liberty.  Heroin is beginning its invasive inroads into the population.  That's the setup.   Populated with the most colorful, diverse cast imaginable, award winner James McBride has accomplished the difficult feat of making each character come alive, every set up believable and relatable.  As their stories are revealed and intertwine, the rascals and heroes of these mean streets are presented with such heart and beauty, I was sorry when it wrapped up.  The writer who came to mind most clearly during the reading was Jimmy Breslin, who shares his insider's love of New York, his journalistic background, his talent for dialogue and beautifully wrought farce.  Which is not to omit the larger implications behind the humor.   Well done.
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James McBride writes with intensity and vivid characterization in a book that speaks to important issues while managing to delight with language. I would recommend this well-written novel to readers who enjoy contemporary fiction and thoughtful literary work.
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Deacon King Kong is a crime novel centering around life in the projects in the 1960's New York City.  What makes this novel such a standout achievement is not so much the action or plot so much as the writing which tells a whole life story in one paragraph If not in each sentence.  Often the characters are revealed in poetic street raps about how they earned their nicknames and what's going on.  McBride is an author I'd never heard of before, but one worth checking out.

Look, the lead character in this novel is an old codger who works here and there as a handyman and part time church deacon.  His nickname is sport coat and he's on a lifelong drunken binge on hooch his friend cooks up and affectionately calls King Kong.  Sport coat is haunted by his dead wife's ghost who one night followed the lights off the pier.  Sport coat doesn't always remember what's going on.  He hangs out mornings by the flagpole where the old folks gather, which is claimed in the afternoons by the local drug dealer.  One day he walks up to Deems and plugs him a good one.  

Other characters include an Italian mobster who runs deliveries out of a container in a storage yard and whose father had a soft spot for the church by the projects. 

All these multi-faceted characters are brought to life by this story.  No one’s a superhero, a star, a gunslinger in the old west.
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I could not put this book down. What I love about the book is how the stories of the main characters are integrated and fit together. The story has twists and turns that will keep any reader engaged. Mr. McBridge takes us to New York City and see a part of the city that is usually out of view. We get to know characters who are engaged in struggles that plague so many communities (addiction, crime, poverty), and yet despite the social realities, the characters are presented as fully developed individuals with a complete sense of their humanity. It is their humanity and relationships that make this book so captivating. I suppose that one could say that this book is set in a urban setting with Black characters at the beginning of the drug epidemic, what could possibly be new to that narrative? Trust me, a lot. I highly recommend this book, and hope that the readers will enjoy spending time with the characters from Cause House as I did.
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