Thursday, July 30, 2020

Deacon King Kong: Storytelling At Its Absolute Finest

Here we have storytelling at its absolute finest, funniest, sharpest, wittiest, and just downright most fun. James McBride's new novel Deacon King Kong is about a lot of things: Drug dealers, treasure hunts, race, ghosts, and some really mysterious cheese (known as the Jesus Cheese). But you never feel overwhelmed. Rather, you just feel incredibly entertained the whole way. 

The novel's about an old drunk named Sportcoat who lives in a housing project in Brooklyn. He spends most of his time drinking homemade booze (he's dubbed it King Kong) and palling around with his buddy Hot Sausage. The year is 1969, and the mob controls the projects, heroin is the new big thing, and mostly everyone distrusts anyone outside their own race. 

The novel kicks off with drunken Sportcoat trying to assassinate the projects' drug dealer in broad daylight. The dealer is a dude named Deems who was a promising baseball star that Sportcoat himself had coached and mentored, so no one has any idea why Sportcoat did it. And that includes Sportcoat himself, who, when the dust settles, actually has no memory of trying to shoot the kid. He denies he even did it — even though he's now in pretty grave danger of some serious retribution.

And it goes from there. Soon, an Italian mobster named Elefante (because of course he's named the Elephant) gets involved, and through a series of maneuverings, the story morphs into a sort of treasure hunt for a priceless statue. How is Sportcoat involved in this? He's mixed up in everything, often unwittingly. And he's often totally overmatched for the circumstances, yet somehow still bumbles along. (There are some HIGH comedy moments when the mobsters send a hit man to rub out Sportcoat...and these attempts always go awry.)  

Simply put, this is a rollicking, ebullient novel, but with a dead serious undercurrent of racism, race relations, and other issues of addiction and drug abuse. This is easily one of my favorite novels of the year. I loved it. In fact, I think I liked this one even better than McBride's The Good Lord Bird, which won him a National Book Award. 

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