Deacon King Kong by James McBride is about Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, better known as “Sportcoat”, and the chain of events he unwittingly sets in motion when he shoots Deems Clemens, the leader of the neighborhood drug dealers. The story is primarily set in a fictional housing project, the Causeway Houses or Cause, and its surrounding neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. It features an expansive cast of characters that might initially take a bit of time to differentiate but they become richly detailed and fleshed out as the story progresses. This is an incredible book and probably one of the best fictional books that I’ve ever read. (I ended up listening to the audiobook twice because I didn’t take notes for the discussion the first time and found the book just as enjoyable the second time around.)
Within the neighborhood, there are the projects, typical Northern highrises, with predominantly Black and Hispanic residents. A local church, Five Points, plays a vital role in the community and serves as a gathering place for some of the more long-standing residents of the Cause. The surrounding area consists of traditional houses in which mostly Italians and other Europeans reside. There are also docks as well as a local police precinct. Clusters of characters inhabit these different parts of the neighborhood and while they’re usually segregated, Sportcoat and his actions serve as the catalyst that brings them all together.
In some ways, it reminded me of Game of Thrones (which I also listened to as an audiobook) where there are like 50 million characters. At first, it’s a bit difficult to keep track of the characters but as Deacon King Kong progresses you get some insight into everyone’s backstory which makes them all memorable and distinct. Even with seemingly minor characters, there’s the expected basic physical description but McBride also spends a moment or two on their background. Quite often there was some quirky story or funny tidbit about the character which helped provide just the right level of detail without feeling long-winded.
Being from Brooklyn and having lived and attended school near the projects I know what they look like. But if you don’t, imagine clusters of old relatively tall brick buildings with concrete pathways and sometimes fenced-in dirt patches in between. There are housing projects in cities around America but this style of densely packed large buildings seems to be most prevalent on the east coast and in Detroit and Chicago. Because there are so many people living in these buildings, the different housing developments are like neighborhoods unto themselves. McBride did a really great job in capturing what it feels like within these buildings that are large but the residents still end up living right on top of each other. The environment is described in such detail that you can imagine in your mind what this place looks like.
Five Points is not necessarily a storefront church but it’s also not a grand chapel. The church is humble and fits the members who are just everyday people from the neighborhood. A major part of the story is how the church members joined together to build the church. They didn’t just gather the money and hire people to come and do the work but instead, they raised money, added some of their money, and contributed physical labor to build the church. And due to that effort, the church became a part of the community and it helped that the members weren’t traveling from across town but simply walked a short distance from the projects. Thus over time a lot of the people in the Causeways were either members, their older relatives were members, or they had some other connection to the church.
Just outside the projects are blocks with traditional houses that existed before the housing developments were built. In telling the story of the Cause and its surrounding neighborhood you also get some insight into White flight which occurred in various parts of New York City as well as other cities across America.
A need for housing during the population boom led to these buildings being built. People fought against such housing because they didn’t want to live next to poor people or immigrants or Black people. Eventually, people moved out while others moved in. There’s also a fictional account of the reality that Black people avoided some neighborhoods or sundown towns due to the possibility of being chased or otherwise threatened with violence. To a degree, the residents of the Cause are penned into the projects which creates a world unto itself. Though using the subway or other forms of transportation they can venture to other parts of the city.
There’s mention of Bensonhurst, a real neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is notorious for the racially motivated attack on Yusef Hawkins, though that event occurred several years later. It was one of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn that I never visited until after college because they were unofficially no-go areas for Black people. It’s like if you think of the “Lion King” with the kingdom of Pride Rock which Simba is free to explore but then he’s cautioned against visiting the Elephant Graveyard.
I liked the way McBride weaved together all of these tidbits to create a rich and complex environment as well as characters. All these little made-up backstories about the characters and neighborhood helped me envision it all in my mind. And being from New York I felt like I’d been to this neighborhood but more importantly knew and liked all the characters. It’s a work of fiction that allows for some creative license but it hits different because there’s a degree of reality and social commentary.
The story takes place in 1969 which marked the end of an incredibly tumultuous decade in America. There had been all of this social and civic upheaval along with assassinations and the growing conflict in Vietnam. This was a period when many felt great changes would take place and progress would be made. The dust was just starting to settle and as time moved towards the 70s, the neighborhood and the people were also changing. Though not necessarily as anticipated.
There is an emerging divide between the older generation and the younger generation that’s coming of age. Most of the older generation migrated from the South, the Caribbean, or elsewhere in search of a better life. On the other hand, the younger generation was primarily born and raised in New York City, if not the Cause itself. The older generation had hard lives wherever they came from and moved to New York with no money and little beyond their hopes and dreams for the future. As the younger generation comes of age they are realizing that life isn’t that great in what was supposed to be their parent’s promised land.
The older generation was born into poverty but had somewhere to dream of, a place off in the distance that might offer an escape from the realities of their lives. Compare that to being born in the projects and knowing the story of their parents or grandparents who migrated to what was supposed to be a special place. But feeling hopeless instead of inspired because thus far all they’ve known is poverty and a sense of feeling penned within a deteriorating and overcrowded community. They realize the hustle and either losing hope or becoming desperate they carry their burdens differently. Life can be hard and hope is an incredibly powerful thing that gives people the encouragement to persist and endure. An underlying theme of Deacon King Kong is focused on what happens when people lose faith or hope.
Sportcoat is in his early 70s, has lived in the projects for over 30 years, and works odd jobs to earn a living. He’s well-known in the neighborhood because he used to coach the Causeway’s youth baseball team and is the neighborhood’s harmless drunk. He was married to his childhood sweetheart, Hettie, who passed away two years before the start of the story and with whom he raised one child. Deems is 19-years-old, was born and raised in the Cause, and has become the most successful drug dealer that the neighborhood has ever seen.
In the years leading up to the story heroin began to move into the neighborhood but not in the volume it has since become. Deems is selling heroin to people in the community and earning quite a bit of money doing so. His grandfather was a hardworking man who kept himself and Deems involved with Five Points. Deems is described as being sweet when he was a kid. And combined with his abilities as a baseball player there was some expectation that if he couldn’t go on to play in the majors then at least he should be able to use baseball in some way to make something of his life. As a result, there’s some anger or rather disappointment from the older generation towards him becoming a drug dealer. Yet, as with many of the other characters, they see the actions of and interact with each other but they don’t know the other characters’ inner lives.
Sportcoat had been quite close to Deems when he was a kid as he’d been both his Sunday school teacher and baseball coach, teaching him everything that he knew about baseball. As a result of that early relationship, Deems has a lot of respect for Sportcoat because of the kindness he showed him as a kid and also the way that he carries and conducts himself.
In his mid-teens when it seemed that Deems was on the right track, his grandfather passed away which was quite a blow as he was the only family member that was there to encourage and support him. There’s no real explanation as to what happened to his father and while his mother is around and provides for him she’s distant and often hostile. Without his grandfather’s guidance, an older cousin introduced him to selling drugs which caused a change in his perspective. And as the leader of his group of friends, when he began selling drugs they were pulled into it as well and thus he became the leader of the neighborhood drug ring.
Deems had the opportunity to play baseball in college but getting caught up in selling drugs for fast money distracted him from what would have been a better long-term path. Deems’ mother was focused on keeping a roof over his head and food in his belly which is important. But, she didn’t show him affection or take the time to talk to him to try to get to know and understand him. Likewise, she didn’t allow him to try to get to understand her or to build an emotional bond. She provided him with the resources and physical things that he needed but not the emotional and mental support that were equally important.
He was emotionally cast out into the world to figure out things on his own. This period in life, the limbo between childhood and adulthood, is a time when many kids are most susceptible to peer pressure while being too immature to make proper decisions. It’s at that point that they take the first early steps in developing their identity and the image of who they want to be. They might go so far as to think they know everything but this is when adolescents are most in need of guidance. You set the foundation when kids are young by telling them the basics of right and wrong but you step back and give them some freedom but continue to guide them as they get older.
Having his grandfather around while also interacting with Sportcoat at Sunday School and baseball practice gave Deems access to two male role models. Through Sportcoat, Deems was also able to form relationships with Hettie and Pudgy Fingers, Sportcoat’s wife and son. It’s telling that when Sportcoat shoots Deems, the neighborhood pulls together to protect him from the retaliation that they’re sure will come. Yet, when Deems, this boy they all knew and loved as a child, started drifting into selling drugs nobody tried to talk sense into him or otherwise come to his rescue. Deems was doing wrong but didn’t go out of his way to be difficult and tried to operate his criminal activities in a way that limited the possibility of any innocent people getting hurt. That should have indicated that he wasn’t a monster or all bad, and there was still a chance to reach him before things went too far.
He establishes a bit of a truce between the regular people living in the Cause and him and his crew. There is a plaza with a flagpole in the housing development where people gather on the benches. In the hours before 11 AM, the regular residents occupy the plaza and use the time to gossip and relax before heading to work or going about their business. There’s a sort of changing of the guards between 11 AM-12 PM after which Deems and his crew take over the area and begin selling to the addicts.
Sportcoat’s best friend is Hot Sausage, the Causeway’s maintenance man, but he is also good friends with Rufus, the maintenance man at another nearby housing project. All three men drink. It would be accurate to describe Sportcoat in particular as an alcoholic. But Rufus makes matters worse by brewing a strong homemade liquor that he refers to as “King Kong”. Sportcoat was already a heavy drinker when his wife was alive but since her passing, it’s gotten worse and he now carries on loud conversations with hallucinations of his deceased wife. Much of their conversation revolves around him asking her to reveal where she’s hidden the money for the church’s Christmas Fund.
In the middle of one of these stupors, Sportcoat shoots Deems in the Plaza in front of seemingly everyone. He was aiming to shoot Deems in the head but a last-minute turn of the head resulted in Deems being struck in the ear. Deems happened to be eating at the time and the commotion resulted in him choking only to have Sportcoat run over to save him. It’s a serious situation but the way it plays out and the commentary offered by the witnesses afterward is quite comical. This is one of many situations that should be serious but occur in such a ridiculous manner that you can’t help but laugh.
What makes it even more ridiculous is that Sportcoat is so out of it that he goes about his day with no recollection of having tried to kill someone. He’s oblivious to what he’s done and the danger he is now in, which increases the tension around Sportcoat as he doesn’t even have the presence of mind to try to protect himself. And he needs all the protection he can get. Deems works for Bunch who is powerful because he’s a higher ranking drug dealer with connections to the local Italian mob which has connections to the local precinct. But Sportcoat also has connections in the form of a community that cares for him and closes ranks to help keep him safe from harm.
Expanding out from the Causeways, we have the local police precinct where Sergeant Kevin Mullen, better known as Potts, works. He’s of Irish descent and grew up a few blocks away from the Causeways. Unlike many of the other officers, Potts is honest and hardworking which has led to him being put through the wringer by the top brass of the police force. Nearing retirement, he’s juxtaposed against a young Black officer, Jethro “Jet” Hardman, who was once his partner but has since been assigned to work undercover in the Causeways. And once again in this relationship we see this contrast between the older generation and the new generation. Jet is eager and ambitious, characteristics that bring him to the attention of the higher-ups.
Potts has been through all of this before so he tries to school Jet by pointing out the flawed design of his assignment. Initially Jet brushes aside Potts’ concerns because he thinks he has it all figured out. There’s a certain naivete with Jet where he believes that he can make a difference and push for progress. But Potts knows better having tried this in the past and he attempts to set Jet straight though the younger man brushes him off. It’s only when things get out of hand and Potts steps in to indirectly save Jet’s life that the younger man finally listens instead of writing Potts off as being out of touch.
Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante is a member of the local organized crime family who is holding on to the old way of doing things, chiefly not selling drugs, while others are pushing for change. As a forty-something-year-old bachelor living a few blocks away from the Cause with his somewhat eccentric mother, he’s incredibly lonely. Like Sportcoat and Potts, he looks back over his life, and now as a mature older man can see the mistakes that he’s made and tries as best as he can to manage his regrets.
Elefante has followed in his father’s footsteps and operates a truck transport and storage company out of a boxcar on the docks that are a few blocks from the Causeway. He mostly deals in things like cigarettes, electronics, etc. but fellow mobster, Joe Peck, has moved into the once prohibited drug trade. Elefante realizes that relationships within the underworld were once built on trust but have given way to superficial dealings that are motivated by greed, a desperate push to not just get money but to get as much as possible.
Because so many of the people that attend Five Points come from the Causeway Houses it’s kind of an extension of the Cause rather than a separate entity. Five Points is the one place within the story where there isn’t a staunch divide between old and new because most of the small group of people who attend the church were there in some capacity from the beginning. Though the church having few new or young members might be an even more powerful statement in the sense that there is no divide, young people have just abdicated their place in the church. Yet, in the aftermath of Sportcoat shooting Deems, Five Points ties all of these worlds together.
Lady Veronica Gee is the wife of the reverend of Five Points and while he may be the official head of the church, she is the true leader of the congregation. While searching for Sportcoat, Potts visits Five Points and has a conversation with Lady Gee which becomes among the first where characters discuss how things are versus how they used to be. The conversation between Lady Gee and Potts is especially insightful as it reveals that Sportcoat shooting Deems has created a domino effect in the local drug world. Perceiving weakness and opportunity, various factions are scrambling to take a larger piece of the pie, if not the whole thing.
Some such as Bunch would like to make an example of Sportcoat so Deems doesn’t look weak and thus people around and above him continue to look as though they’ve got everything under control. Potts believes that arresting Sportcoat would get him off the streets to safety and put a stop to the war that’s brewing. On the surface, it’s a good idea but knowing that many of the policemen at the precinct accept bribes from criminals, it seems a bit naive on Potts’ part. It should also be noted that while there’s an effort being made to find and arrest Sportcoat, no real effort was being put into arresting Deems or his crew before all this drama began.
On the surface, it looks like Deems has all the right connections to offer him protection while also getting vengeance while Sportcoat doesn’t stand a chance. But because of Deems’ relationships being built on mutual greed and a desire for drug profits, they’re shaky at best. Sportcoat might seem to not have any power, but in having the support of his friends and neighbors, he has a lot. When things get rough people sent to avenge Deems give up and they begin to turn on each other. But even when things seem to be hopeless for Sportcoat, his friends pull together and do whatever they can to help him.
Potts tries to appeal to Lady Gee by pointing out the mounting danger but she responds that things have been unsafe for quite some time. It’s just that the world beyond the Causeway is finally noticing. She doesn’t necessarily agree with what Sportcoat did but is reluctant to give him up because she believes that as a community they’re supposed to protect him. Lady Gee also states that while disappointed in Deems, she doesn’t believe the community should give up on him either. She sees them both as being flawed but still having some good in them and believes it’s not too late for either man to turn their life around.
Sportcoat works odd jobs in the neighborhood, one of which is helping an elderly Italian lady gather plants from the neighborhood and tend to her garden. A country boy at heart, Sportcoat finds that he doesn’t need a drink to get his day started on the days that he spends tending to her plants. The two sometimes talk and she tells Sportcoat about her son making the mistake of sacrificing his life to chase fast money which will more likely bring him unhappiness if not death.
There’s a theme throughout Deacon King Kong of change with regards to the old and new ways of doing things. That’s not to say that the old way was perfect but that with the proliferation of drugs and all the things it brings, it’s a blight on communities. It is a cancer destroying the social fabric and not just changing people as individuals but also in the manner in which they communicate with each other. Civility and cordiality fall by the wayside and it’s something to be lamented and mourned as a loss.
Within Deacon King Kong, no one knows why Sportcoat shot Deems but yet they all kind of understand. Initially, Sportcoat doesn’t recall shooting Deems and is in denial for quite some time. While everyone tries to keep him safe, Sportcoat is more focused on getting the youth baseball team back together and finding the Christmas Fund money that his wife had hidden. These might seem like random and unimportant tasks to be concerned with while your life is in danger. But they are the things that help to keep the neighborhood together and preserve a sense of community. They are things that give both the kids and adults a break from the reality of the Causeways by bringing a bit of joy and hope into their lives.
Sportcoat had a rough childhood and his life was also plagued by a myriad of illnesses that could have and realistically should have killed him. But most of the characters have a little “thing”, some kind of interest, principle, or passion that they cling to regardless of how far they might have fallen in life. That thing shines as a glimmer of hope and in holding on to it, even if it’s just the memory, it’s one of the few things they can control and hold on to in a world that is changing and in which they feel they have no power.
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