Review: Once upon a time in ... South Brooklyn
James McBride’s latest novel, “Deacon King Kong,” spins slapstick and quasi-history into social surrealism.
James McBride opens his new novel, “Deacon King Kong,” with a literal bang: An elderly South Brooklyn deacon named Cuffy Lambkin, “known as Sportscoat to his friends … stuck an ancient Luger in the face of a 19-year-old drug dealer nameds Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.”
It’s fall 1969, and one borough over, the Miracle Mets are gearing up for their World Series run. In Brooklyn, though, “The ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of suckers too black or too poor to leave.” Baseball has been usurped by heroin, and for the residents of the Causeway Housing Projects, the future is muddled.
So are the circumstances of the shooting, which Sportscoat is too drunk to recall. “How’d my army gun get here?” the church man wonders, tippling with his old friend Hot Sausage in the back room of a neighborhood grocery store, even as cops canvass the surrounding streets.
It’s a tragicomic moment, marking the way Sportscoat engages (or fails to) with the world. But its tinge of absurdity indicates that McBride is operating in the realm of social allegory, a lineage that extends back through generations of writers: Ralph Ellison, Terry Southern, Darius James. Like them, he telegraphs his intentions through the use — or better yet, the reinvention — of history, which as “Deacon King Kong” progresses becomes a kind of floating opera, touching but not always overlapping with events as they occurred.
“[T]he Brooklyn Borough President was welcoming Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon,” McBride writes. “On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Bella Abzug, the flamboyant Jewish congresswoman, was meeting with fundraisers to consider a run for president.” In reality, Armstrong, along with fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, was greeted by Mayor John V. Lindsay, and Abzug was still a year away from election to the House.
The implication is that the world of this narrative is both the one we inhabit and one that is slightly different, a space of imaginative reverie. The author of six previous books, McBride has plowed this territory before. His 2013 novel “The Good Lord Bird,” which won the National Book Award for fiction, is set in Kansas in the 1850s, and in its broadly satirical portraits of John Brown, Frederick Douglass and others, it stretches history, rendering it picaresque.
Though sparked by an act of violence, “Deacon King Kong” often spirals into comic riffs and set pieces that suggest there is both more and less at stake. For one thing, there are the Pynchonesque names — Sportscoat and Hot Sausage; the narcotics kingpin Bunch Moon; and the mobster Tommy “The Elephant” Elefante, “40, heavyset and handsome,” whose father helped fund and build the Five Ends Baptist Church, where Sportscoat is a deacon.
We also see this suspension of reality in the aftermath of the shooting, which both Deems and Sportscoat survive. What saves Deems is a quick head turn, just before the older man pulls the trigger; for Sportscoat, it’s an almost preternatural ability to deflect death. “Of course the folks in the Cause House had predicted Sportscoat’s death for years,” McBride writes.
After the attack, he seems to develop a kind of invisibility shield. “Deems thought of the old man not with rage,” McBride elaborates, “but rather with confusion. He could not understand it. If there was one person in the Cause who had nothing to gain by shooting him, it was Sportscoat.” Nothing to gain, yes, but also nothing to fear.
Sportscoat has a history with Deems, having been his baseball coach when he was a pitching prodigy and not yet a terrifying criminal — a shift that reflects the community’s trajectory as well. But it’s more than a shared past that protects the deacon; it’s the novel’s sense of fate. The shooting doesn’t change a thing, not even the old man’s invulnerability; everything continues as it has.
When Deems won’t go after Sportscoat, Bunch sends an enforcer — who ends up knocked out twice and electrocuted once. At points, such twists cross over into slapstick: “Several sets of eyes followed the bottle as it made a long slow arc into the air,” McBride writes, describing a fifth of brandy thrown into a crowd, “… arching a bit as it reached its apex, then falling back to earth in a long, lazy, crazy spiraling curve — boinking Earl, Bunch’s hit man, right on the noggin.”
Even in these moments, McBride is after something bigger than raw comedy — in this case, a reminder that we would all do well to keep an eye out for the unseen.
For both Sportscoat and the Elephant, that means communicating with the past. The deacon’s late wife keeps popping up to lecture him about how he lives. Their relationship is emblematic, not only because it is unclear whether she is ghost or hallucination (McBride deftly keeps it ambiguous) but also in the way she finally wears him down.
So it is with the Elephant, who enlists Sportscoat’s aid in recovering a small stone figurine his father hid decades earlier in a wall of the church. Their collaboration provides an unexpected — and pointed — moment of integration in every sense, revealing the connections that underpin the neighborhood.
Sportscoat may appear cartoonish, a drunk in thrall to Hot Sausage’s homemade rotgut (known as “King Kong”), but he gradually assumes the moral center of the narrative. And Elefante may be a hoodlum but he has scruples, refusing to sell drugs in his community. Like the rest of us, what he really wants to do is fall in love and settle down.
It’s hardly surprising that “Deacon King Kong” should finish upbeat; what other ending could it have? Rather than Chekhov’s gun, in which a weapon introduced in Act 1 must be used by Act 3, McBride’s gunshot propels the action toward conciliation of a kind.
In that regard, the novel is asking an important question: What if, instead of disorder, conflict might instead lead to harmony? “[A] man who doesn’t trust cannot be trusted,” Elefante suggests, in a phrase that turns into its own refrain. What goes around, in other words, comes around.
Even Sportscoat and Deems find a delicate equilibrium. Sportscoat explains to him that it’s not what he saw in Deems that made him pull the trigger; it’s what he feared Deems might become. “Now I know why I tried to kill you,” the old man acknowledges. “I don’t want that you should end up like me.”
Ulin is a former book editor and book critic for The Times.
Riverhead: 384 pages, $28
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