James McBride. Deacon King Kong. A Novel.
Read by Dominic Hoffman.
12 CDs. 14 hrs.
Penguin Random House Audio. 2020.
In this audiobook, James McBride paints for us a very clear picture of life in South Brooklyn near the abandoned docks in the fall of 1969. This neighborhood, the Causeway Housing Projects, stands out in such vivid, perceptive, and emotional detail that it becomes one of the most important characters in the novel. The Causeway, a predominantly African-American and Latinx, impoverished district, has recently witnessed the growing presence of the illegal drug trade, controlled by Italian mobsters. A central unifying factor in the community, Five Ends Baptist Church, is home to many families and a source of food for both the body and soul. The shared sense of community is evident in the relationships between the members of the church, their friends, shopkeepers, and even a few cops.
The main character, the old church deacon, Cuffy Jasper Lampkin, better known as "Sportcoat," one-time baseball coach and Sunday-school teacher, is now a drunk. He is a local fixture, regularly seen toting his bottle of home-brewed King Kong and loudly arguing with his recently departed wife, Hetty, who apparently committed suicide. Sportcoat was "a walking genius, a human disaster, a sod, a medical miracle, and the greatest baseball umpire that the Cause Houses had ever seen, in addition to serving as coach and founder of the All-Cause Boys Baseball Team." Therefore, it is astonishing that one day, fully intoxicated, he, Deacon King Kong, leveled his revolver at teen drug dealer, Deems Clemens, a young man he once proclaimed worthy of pitching in the MLB, and shot his ear off.
In some of the most hilarious moments of the story, Sportcoat, with a target on his back, repeatedly evades the bungled attempts of hitman Earl to finish him off. The mob's hunt for him becomes entangled in many other plots – what happened to the church's Christmas Club money that Hetty had hidden in the church? Where did the cheese deliveries come from? What had the Elephant's father hidden in the church after he built it? Would Officer Potts ever get together with Sister Gee? The story evokes a wondrous sense of community, of folks bound together by friendship, locale, and care for each other.
Deacon King Kong isn't easy to follow as an audiobook. Each chapter is related by a different person, with a different perspective. It isn't always evident how each chapter relates to the tangled central story. Gradually, however, as pieces of the puzzle and their assessments multiply, and relationships between the multiplicity of characters reveal themselves, the whole picture emerges. McBride, author of the acclaimed The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, develops the colorful characters of the Causeway neighborhood, like BumBum and Hot Sausage, in great detail and touching compassion. His portrayal of that district, at that time, and from within gives readers a true picture of a life they might never have otherwise encountered, a portrayal enhanced by Dominic Hoffman, whose voice captures well the differences in dialect, racial background and status of McBride's characters. His calm, measured tone reflects the persistence of compassion and humanity against the everyday undercurrent of injustice and violence. Adult listeners who like multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-generational novels, written in a realistic yet sympathetic and humorous manner, will enjoy their visit to the community of Deacon King Kong.
Reviewed by Susan Allison