James McBride, Deacon King Kong (2020) is the best American novel I’ve read in years. What’s so good about it? The characters, the language, the wit, the strong sense of place, the original take on drug-infested ghetto life, the humanizing effect of the story.
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THE CHARACTERS: The story begins when the main character, Deacon Cuffy Jasper Lambkin, aka Sportcoat, blows the ear off of the biggest drug dealer in the Cause Projects of Brooklyn. He meant to kill him, but was stumbling drunk and distracted at the critical moment. There was no malice. Sportcoat had been this kid’s mentor and baseball coach and expected great things of him. The reason for this blind act is one of the mysteries of the story. Lots of things beneath the surface of the story move events, esp. in the lives of Sportcoat and his mysteriously deceased wife, Hattie.
While McBride declares Sportcoat a “dead man walking” from the moment he shot Deems Clemens, he knows he is not a dead man, because he knows that Sportcoat cannot be killed. His track record for limited immortality goes back a long way. (See ch. 2, “A Dead Man”). Things don’t look good from the moment of his birth. Just as the new-born Sportcoat was “slapped to life,” a bird flew in through an open window and hovered for a moment over the head of the baby. An evil omen, says the midwife. “He’s gonna be an idiot.” Saints and heros always have portents at birth, but they usually prove true and glorify rather than reduce the hero. Here it’s an ill omen for the midwife, one of many effects of a Barbados/Caribbean superstitious religiosity current at Sportcoat’s birth in South Carolina-and still in Brooklyn. Baby Sportcoat, then still called Cuffy, gets every childhood disease available and suffers every accident ever to befall kids by the age of three. At age 5 he spits at his image in a mirror, “a call sign to the devil,” says a medicine woman helping his mother to understand this difficult child. As a result he did not grow any teeth until age 9. His mother, in despair tries weird folk medicine remedies. She gets the prophecy from a medicine woman that he’ll grow “more teeth than an alligator.” The prophecy proves true in excess. His many extra teeth are extracted for free by white students at a dental college in North Carolina.
Those are some of the prodigies of his youth. In his teen years the onslaught of killing continues, always turned back: blood poisoning, measles, scarlet fever, hematoid illness, viral infection, pulmonary embolism, lupus. The diseases were attracted to Sportcoat because “they smelled the red meat of a sucker marked for death.” The list continues for several pages: a series of strokes, an addiction to alcohol that would kill anyone not protected by magical invulnerability, a magic that stays with him into his seventies. Apart from natural calamities, he is also saved from three murder attempts by hired hit-persons, his inborn magic combining with slapstick good luck to rescue him. Sportcoat may be marked by death, but he’s not taken. Suffering may be written into his DNA, but he does not crumple.
These are not the miracles of saints, though some have that coloring. Rather they are the onslaught of African-American misfortunes heaped in a great pile, disguised as sickness and bad luck, and crammed into the destiny of one man. Sportcoat is a weird scapegoat of American negro suffering, lifelong tragedy in all its forms showered, blow by blow insistently from birth to death, on a single man.
And yet he survives, has talent and strength, love and goodness, and lives a life that is all the more charmed for thriving in the midst of hellish calamity. He has a good, loving marriage to an exceptional woman, until she walks into the East River one night and drowns herself (another of the mysteries). His life with her continues post-mortem. They talk with each other.
Remove the undercurrents , the mysteries of character and destsiny, and Sportcoat and his best friend Hot Sausage, seem very much like the amiable jokesters and bumbling neer-do-wells of the barber shop and the neighborhood bar, senior citizen boozers-in-the-hood. The book works on the level of two amiable old drunks trading quips and insults: ”Two dumb-ass, old-time, donkey-ass idiots,” the drug lord declares them. But Sportcoat is a lot more. He also has a quirky man-for-all-seasons quality. He is “plant man.” He knows plants, many, all kinds; and he makes them grow, many. (As his dead wife puts it in a visitation, “You gived life to things.”) He fixes anything and is on call in the projects to repair the many minor mishaps; Sunday school teacher, baseball coach, projects’ league organizer, umpire.
But he is also the would-be assassin, executioner of local master drug-dealer Deems Clemens. He shot Deems unaware of what he was doing. Okay, if you listen to the gab in flagpole plaza, he was unaware because he was dead drunk. But that doesn’t motivate a man to kill a 19-year-old whom he had liked, coached, tutored and cultivated as a major league pitcher. Sportcoat’s motives are seated outside of his consciousness in a kind of collective resentment:
For the destruction of the good life in the projects by drugs.
For the unspoken anger at Deems for embodying that shift.
For the role that that shift played in driving his wife to suicide.
The shooting continues his superman role, because having tried to kill Deems, he later rescues him heroically when he is shot by the professional hit-woman hired by Deems’s drug lord to kill Sportcoat. She shoots two wrong men, Sausage and Deems, and misses Sportcoat (can’t be killed). Deems, shot in the left arm (What luck! he pitches right-handed), falls into the East River, and Sportcoat jumps in, drags him out and saves him. Deems recovers, steadies his life, and eventually is a triple-A league pitcher headed for the majors.
The old super-hero drunk comes to a turning point and conversion after the Deems experience. A conversation with his deceased wife wakens a lost part of his character. He talks with Hettie all the time, seemingly crazy drunken mutterings. She drives him like an engine. She knows where the box with the church Christmas Club fund is hidden, but won’t tell Sportcoat. It was worth about $4000, placed in Hettie’s care, lost at her death. Sportcoat is pestered, suspected and blamed for its loss, and he is constantly after her to reveal it. That quest eventually drives him to a bigger treasure hidden in the church, a discovery that floats all boats in Five Ends Baptist.
After the rescue of Deems Sportcoat has a dream where Hettie appears to him as she was when young. This is one of several virtuoso passages in the book that opens up the plot, turns it around, and reveals ideas on which the story turns. Hettie takes him back to his youth in Possum Point, South Carolina. In his dream she is young, beautiful, ambitious. Both lived their New York life homesick for the life left behind. Here’s Hettie’s take on New York:
“Isn’t it something, what New York really is? We come here to be free and find life’s worse here than back home. The white folks here just color it different. They don’t mind you sitting next to ‘em on the subway, or riding the bus in the front seat, but if you asks for the same pay, or wants to live next door, or get so beat down you don’t wanna stand up and sing about how great America is, they‘ll bust down on you so hard pus’ll come out your ears.”
The dream also reveals the cause of Hettie’s suicide, despair at seeing Sportcoat degenerate. Hettie pulls him back into their youth, evokes the man he was. It changes him:
Within his old self, the person he once was, the young man of physical strength with a wide-eyed thirst for wisdom and knowledge, had suddenly sat up, opened his eyes, and gazed around the room. For the first time in his life, Sportcoat felt something inside him breaking up.
Sister Gee, the pastor’s wife, has the gift of second sight, i.e. seeing through the sham of the outer into the inner nature of people:
Why she saw the man (Officer Potts) inside and others could not, she was not sure. They were both spoken for in matters of love. But that indefinable spirit, that special thing, that special song had not been heard by either of them.
She is very aware of her own identity as something that develops out of the “unreal” self. She gradually becomes authentic: “The older I get, the more I become what I really am.”
The idea of the negro’s second self is clearly a moving force in McBride’s writing. The two selves of Henry Shackleford aka Onion in Good Lord Bird: “Onion” is man and woman at the same time, the woman part a convenient lie or disguise concealing the endangered hidden part. But more deeply buried, the life of the negro under slavery as itself a fabricated outer shell, a form of lying:
Being a negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows. Who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color.
Onion’s conversation with Annie on the porch at sunset in the earlier book is the counterpart of the dream of Hettie in Deacon KK: moments of self-discovery and conversion. Annie recalls Onion to a concealed, almost forgotten inner self, Henry Shackleford as a man with a serious talent for music, no longer just a fabrication of white mens’ expectations (GLB, p. 349). No authentic existence is possible, no success is reachable, without self-knowledge. That is the wisdom of Onion:
I wanted to tell her, I was gonna turn ‘bout, turn over a new leaf, be a new person, be the man that I really was. But I couldn’t, for it weren’t in me to be a man. I was but a coward, living a lie. But when you thunk on it, it weren’t a bad lie. Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day.
But concealing the inner self means self-sentencing to a useless life:
A body can’t prosper if a person don’t know who they are. That makes you poor as a pea, not knowing who you are inside. (GLB,p 377).
So in Ch. 20, “Plant Man,” Deacon KK becomes a coming of age novel. It may be a late coming, but the old man finally finds his lost inner self, “becomes what he really is.” It is a rebirth and a religious conversion. He never touches King Kong or any alcohol again and he becomes a good husband to his dead wife.
Now, while we’re still on the mysteries of Sportcoat’s life, the final one is his death. No one knows the cause of death. No one sees Sportcoat for over a year after the last shooting incident. Everyone assumes he fears the police and is holed up with a supply of King Kong. In the last pages, Sausage tells Sister Gee how it happened. He died by self-drowning. He walked off Vitali pier into the East River, as Hettie had done, holding up a bottle of King Kong, of which he had not drunk a drop, an self-control, and maybe a parody of the nearby statue of Liberty, standing in the same harbor in which Sportcoat died, raising her torch, as Sportcoat raised his liquor bottle, a sign of triumph, a final one after the other triumphs of his final year: he had arranged the refurbishing of the church. He had the neglected church garden planted and tended. As soon as the garden was finished, Hettie disappeared, “gone to glory,” and he became “born again to the Word.”
When the story opens the good in the people living in the projects has gone to rust and ruin, eaten away by the usual evils: poverty, drugs, greed, fear; but it wakens again. There is a kind, conciliatory spirit at work in this novel. The projects are not the devilishly evil place they are in Spike Lee’s film Clockers, which I believe influenced McBride. Drugs are a curable, at least a manageable evil. The character of the tough cop with a good heart (Harvey Keitel) who rescues the main character and his family in Clockers, has filtered through a number of characters in Deacon KK, including the white Irish cop, Potts. The goodness in people (McBride’s term, repeated often) manifests for one thing in the interracial, counter-ethnic-isolation embodied in characters like Potts and Sister Gee:
· Sister Gee ends her stale marriage with Pastor Gee to cleave unto Potts. The friendship between these two is sweet, charming, uncolored by the violence and racism endemic in the projects.
· A friendship struck in prison years before the action of the plot between an Irishman and an Italian eventually leads to the rise in fortunes of the people and the institution of Five Ends Baptist.
· The son of that Italian, Tony Elephante, a second-generation small-time black-marketeer, saves Five Ends Baptist Church from ruin, marries a nice Irish girl with whom he finds the happiness his life as a wheeler-dealer had robbed him of, retires, and runs a bagel factory.
· Deems straightens out and is a rising star in professional baseball.
Sister Gee ends a powerful monologue savaging life in the projects with the declaration that “God is forever generous with his gifts: hope, love, truth, and the belief in the indestructibility of the good in all people.” (p. 268). The two diseases of the neighborhood (drugs and greed) seem cured for the moment at least; the decline of the church is reversed. Starting with Sportcoat, in other words, there is a series of emergences from cocoons of neglect, crime, despair, prejudice, alcoholism, a shedding of false lives and negro-second-selves, and a return to authentic lives.
LANGUAGE AND STYLE
The style of the first two chapters sizzles, pops, seethes with surprises and outrages, with wit and craziness. The dialogue throughout is rich with African-American urban patois. Even when the story settles into plain narrative prose, there are passages of force comparable to the best of Balzac. I have no idea if McBride has read Balzac, but in compelling descriptions of a massive, malicious city, they are on the same level. For example:
· Read Ch. 7 (“The March of the Ants”), pp. 74-77: a virtuoso description of New York City, its vitality, its malice, its weirdness. The passage has a throbbing heart beat that leaves you breathless—literally. I recently read the whole passage out loud to friends. We had to stop to draw breath, laugh, exclaim.
· Sister Gee on life in the projects (266-68).
· Sportcoat’s last dream of Hettie (pp. 280-88).
Sleaze and malice of place are no hindrance to lyricism and soaring emotion. Officer Potts leaving a flirtatious visit with Sister Gee:
Potts, without a word, placed his NYPD cap on his head and stepped out into the dark evening, the smell of the dirty wharf drifting into his nose and consciousness with the ease of lilacs and moonbeams, fluttering around his awakened heart like butterflies. (p. 117)
There is laugh-out-loud humor in the people, the situations, the language. He hits the reader regularly with one-liners that stop the flow of steady reading:
· Sportcoat in conversation with the deceased Hettie: “Ain’t got time for you, woman. Not today I don’t! You’re not yourself today anyway. And that’s an improvement!”
· Sausage declaring Sportcoat crazy: “Your cheese done slid off your cracker.”
· On early negro baseball players: “Rube Foster hit a ball so far in Texas it had to take the train back home from Alabama!”
· Feckless hit-man Earl Morris: “That idiot’s so dumb he lights up a room by leaving it.”
· Hettie: “Jesus could baptize shit into sugar!”
And descriptions of characters that bundle life into a dependent clause or two:
· “He’s gonna be an idiot” [said the midwife birthing Sportcoat] handed him to his mother, and vanished, moving to Washington, DC, where she married a plumber and never delivered another baby again.
· “The pastor [blessing the three year old Cuffy] announced, ‘He’s got the devil’s understanding,’ and departed for Chicago, where he quit the gospel and became a blues singer named Tampa Red and recorded the monster hit song, ‘Devil’s Understanding,’ before dying in anonymity flat broke and crawling into history, immortalized in music studies and rock-and-roll college courses the world over, idolized by white writers and music intellectuals for his classic blues hit that was the bedrock of the forty-million-dollar Gospel Stam Music Publishing empire, from which neither he nor Sportcoat ever received a dime.”
· [Seeing his teeth come in three years late, Sportcoat’s mother] “sought out the medicine woman excitedly, who came over, examined Cuffy’s mouth, and said, “He’s gonna have more teeth than an alligator,” whereupon the mother happily patted the boy on the head, lay down for a nap, and expired.”
The final pages urge the reader to go back and see to what extent the mysterious destiny of Sportcoat was a religious destiny. Alongside the screwball religiosity of the Barbados, is another, more potent. He experiences a moral regeneration and causes one (in Deems). The figure of Jesus, never present physically, but ever-present in his working, plays a role too extensive to detail here (follow the motif of Jesus’s cheese). His image is present and has a major role to play in the story. Jesus is painted on the outer wall of the church with outstretched arms. The picture is modelled on Giotto’s Last Judgment–of course, the artists were Italian, friends of the older Elephante. The inscription, “May God hold you in the palm of His hand,” is the key to finding the treasure hidden in the church.
Deems, a gunshot in the shoulder, sinking in the river and drowning, calls, “Help me now, God, and if I don’t drown…God, help me please.” Sportcoat is God’s agent in this case, and the rescue gives life and reality to what is unspoken in those three elision dots.
Sister Gee ends her tirade against life in New York with this declaration:
In her heart it [her and Sportcoat’s work in the projects, curing, healing, teaching] was proof that God was forever generous with His gifts: hope, love, truth and the belief in the indestructability of the good in all people. If she could have, she would have stood on top of Building 17 with a bullhorn and shouted that truth for the whole projects to hear.
I don’t know anything about McBride’s personal relation to religion, but it’s a major part of his work as a writer. It shows also in his second book, Miracle at Santa Anna, movie version directed by Spike Lee (2008).
Deacon King Kong ends with a brief dedication, or rather acknowledgment, after the final page: “Thanks to the humble redeemer who gives us the rain, the snow, and all things in between.”