Deacon King Kong by James McBride is an unique mix of mystery and character study. I highly suggest you go into this one blind. I had a different impression of this book from reading the synopsis, but was still pleasantly surprised. The first half had me feeling a bit overwhelmed with all of the characters being introduced and different storylines, but by the second half I could not put it down. Deacon King Kong is a truly unique mystery novel with a bumbling, unlovable, but somehow likable protagonist who does something unthinkable.
Set in a low income housing section (called the Cause houses) of New York City in the 1960's, the cast of characters are a Black residents who relocated from the south, Latinx immigrants, Italian mobster types, and Irish cops. The characters are rich and entertaining. Deacon King Kong a.k.a. "Sportcoat" is a church deacon at Five Ends Baptist Church, where he does odd end jobs around the church and neighborhood. Sportcoat is a bumbling alcoholic who is usually seen stumbling around the Cause houses, drunk on homemade hooch called "king kong," and "talking" to his late wife Hettie. The book begins with Sportcoat shooting the neighborhood's biggest drug dealer, Deems, who he has known since Deems was a little boy. The shooting triggers (no pun intended) a series of events that changes the Cause house resident's lives and brings them closer together.
McBride has a unique writing style that brings all of the characters to life. The sense of place was profound and I could picture in my head the projects of NYC with it's residents from across the US and other countries. He captured the melting pot that is NYC perfectly. Sportcoat is a odd ball protagonist that you love to hate. He has a bad drinking habit and seems like he is one step away from entering the loony bin, but something makes you want to root for him. I felt like this story covered heavy topics, but with a lightness that made me smile and laugh. It was the perfect depiction of how to manage life in the projects. Make light of the hard situations, otherwise you will never get through them.
The first half of the book introduces all of the characters and gives you a taste of their stories, but the second half develops and interlaces their stories in a way that comes together perfectly in the end. I went into this thinking it would be more of a mystery novel, but the mystery wasn't so much just about why Sportcoat shot Deems. In fact, while that is the catalyst for the stories events, it is not the sole focus. That was one thing that I really enjoyed about Deacon King Kong. I started the book wondering why Sportcoat shot Deems and ended the book with a smile plastered on my face and forgetting the shooting even took place.
I gave Deacon King Kong 4.5/5 stars and highly recommend it if you enjoy a nice mix of plot and character driven novel with unique and diverse characters that will keep you entertained. This book was a step outside of my usual comfort zone, but I am so glad I read it. Some parts in the beginning are a bit slow, but stick it out because the ending is worth it. Here are some questions you will have as you read and show how amazingly weird this book is:
Who is bringing that damn cheese??
Where are the ants and why do they only come out once a year?
Why did Sportcoat shoot Deems?
Will Hot Sausage go down for a crime he didn't commit?
Is Sportcoat crazy or just the town drunk?
Where is the church Christmas money that Hettie squirreled away?
What does the Elephant have to do with this story?
Will Sister Gee leave her husband for Potts, the Irish cop?
Do I have you intrigued? I swear, this book is weird, but great. Give it a try!