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Deacon King Kong

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In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project's drug dealer at point-blank range.

In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood's Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.

As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters--caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York--overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published March 3, 2020

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About the author

James McBride

25 books3,515 followers
James McBride is a native New Yorker and a graduate of  New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.  He is married with three children. He lives in Pennsylvania and New York.  

James McBride is a former staff writer for The Washington Post, People Magazine, and The Boston Globe. His work has also appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.

As a musician, he has written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., and Gary Burton, among others. He served as a tenor saxophone sideman for jazz legend Little Jimmy Scott. He is the recipient of several awards for his work as a composer in musical theater including the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award. His “Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ ” Tour, a nationwide tour of high schools and colleges promoting reading through jazz, was captured in a 2003 Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television programs in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

---from his official website

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,587 reviews
Profile Image for Elle.
584 reviews1,295 followers
June 9, 2021
This took a lot longer for me to finish than I was anticipating. It’s not particularly long or dense, but was just difficult to get back into once I put it down. The characters are charming, fleshed-out and full of life, but initially it was hard to connect with what they were doing.

Honestly I was over halfway through Deacon King Kong wondering what it was even about. I mean, I knew what was happening, but I didn’t understand what James McBride was trying to say. I had no idea where it was headed, even as pieces began to overlap and fall together. The seriousness of the catalyst and crime, Sportcoat shooting a 19-year-old drug dealer in broad daylight, was played against the absurdity of the life he’s leading. I didn’t know how I was supposed to react: should I be on the edge of my seat or should I be cackling at the hijinks of the Cause Houses’ residents? Was Sportcoat’s utter confusion at the crime he was being told he committed funny or sad?

I think those questions ended up being indicative of the skill in James McBride’s writing. In places of poverty and where the only real ways to get ahead are on the wrong side of the law, you have to be able to find the bright spots or you’ll be drowned in the dark places. You can’t just live to survive.

While I did feel kind of aimless in the first half, the back half was nearly impossible to tear myself away from. I kept hoping for not just an ending, but a resolution. Despite not seemingly having anything in common with a majority of the characters like I originally felt, I became engrossed in their lives. Deacon King Kong is one of those novels whose brilliance sneaks up on you. I haven’t been this pleasantly surprised by a book in a while, and I’ll be looking to pick up more by McBride going forward.

*Thanks to Penguin Group - Riverhead & Netgalley for an advance copy!

**For more book talk & reviews, follow me on Instagram at @elle_mentbooks!
Profile Image for Julie .
4,000 reviews58.9k followers
April 16, 2020
Deacon King Kong by James McBride is a 2020 Random House publication.

Bold, Brilliant and Captivating!

Set in 1969 Brooklyn, the story starts off with a literal bang when an elderly church deacon, known as ‘Sportcoat’, shoots Deems Clemens, a drug dealer, in front of the Cause houses housing project, with no shortage of witnesses.

Sportcoat, may have been the deacon of The Five Ends Baptist Church for years, but he is also a long-time alcoholic, whose beverage of choice is a homemade hooch called King Kong. While his health has suffered, more so now that his wife, Hettie, has died, no one seems to know why Sportcoat shot Deems. However, the fallout connects a group of people from vastly different walks of life, from police officers, to members of the Italian mob, in a very surprising way.

I must say, I was very impressed with this novel!! It’s unique and packed with humor. There’s a zany satirical quality to the story and it’s just enormous! There is a huge cast of characters, which is normally a deal breaker for me. But, in this case, I miraculously had no problem keeping up with the characters. There is a lot going on, however, and while not always as cohesive as I needed it to be, it all somehow comes together beautifully.

There is a treasure hunt, a mystery, and a surprising romance, all rolled into an atmospheric and timely crime drama, as different drug factions war it out, all wanting a piece of the pie, while Sportcoat, who has no memory of shooting Deems, has a price on his head.

McBride masterfully weaves the threads together, connecting the characters in one way or another. While the humor stands out, so does the poignant portrait of loneliness and sorrow. Yet, at the end of the day the strong emphasis on faith, church, and the importance of community, gives this novel a stylishly warm glow.

Overall, this is a unique piece of historical fiction,which covers a lot of ground with a magnificent deliverance. There is some anger here, but its presentation is mild, and the crime elements are far from graphic. While it is a little bittersweet, with a few moments of melancholy, it is mostly an affable, gentle story that left me with an enormous respect for McBride’s talent as a writer.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,543 reviews24.6k followers
July 27, 2020
A sensationally brilliant character and community driven historical fiction by James McBride, set in 1969 in the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, New York. 71 year old old timer, Five Ends Baptist Church Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, aka Sportcoat, is drunk on his buddy Rufus Harley's special blend of hooch named King Kong. Sportcoat shoots the ear of 19 year old drug dealer, Deems Clemens, with an ancient gun, although he has no memory of doing this afterwards. The fallout from this act that includes a drug turf war, drives the heart of this vibrant, comic and colourful novel. Sportcoat has a 26 year old blind son, Pudgy Fingers, and lost his beloved wife, Hettie, when she walked into the river 2 years ago, since then he continues to see and converse with her, desperate for her to tell him where she kept the Church Christmas Collection, money that the poverty stricken people need back.

The community see Sportcoat as a dead man walking, although none of the 16 witnesses, including an undercover police officer, say a word to the police. Sportcoat is a well known and loved figure in the Projects, he is a gifted gardener, and continues to work, a handyman who can fix anything, afflicted with a lifetime of ill health, yet miraculously still alive. He ignores warnings and advice to leave and hide from everyone, including his best friend, Hot Sausage, who distributes the mystery cheese amongst those in need on a monthly basis. The community throw their weight behind trying to ensure Sportcoat's safety, one of their own, including the ladies that provide the backbone of the church, such as Sister Gee who makes a profound and surprising connection with Irish NYPD Sergeant Potts, married, soon to retire. The lonely Tom Elefante, a northern Italian smuggler with responsibilities for his criminal family business, lives with his elderly mother, wanting to get out of his life of crime and wishing for love, meets The Governor and falls for his daughter, Melissa, seeking a box hidden by his father of few words, Guido.

McBride's prose is lyrical, breathing life into his characters, capturing the beating pulse of the community and its history, with heart and poetry, painting larger than life pictures in the mind with his rich descriptions. There is a magic in the strong spirit, a soul music that flows within the community, the folklore, fertile tendrils of love, unity and hope woven through the narrative, mingling with the joy, laughter, and conversational banter with, of course, the heartbreak, racism, pain, death and misery of the time and place, where heroin is the new slavery, claiming children into its ruthless, unforgiving grasp, there is no American dream here, but there is the Venus of Wildendorf, and where man is in the palm of God's hand. Magnetic, hilarious and mesmerising storytelling from a gifted author. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Random House Transworld for an ARC.
Profile Image for Anne Bogel.
Author 6 books52.1k followers
October 19, 2021
I started this book back in February and, in the wake of the coronavirus, had a difficult time continuing in print in March—but then I switched to the audio version and couldn't put it down.

The story begins with a shooting: it's 1969, in the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn; a beloved drunk deacon named Sportcoat wanders into the courtyard and shoots the drug dealer he'd once treated like a son point-blank, in front of everyone. After this jolting beginning, McBride zooms out to show the reader how this violent act came to take place, exploring the lives of the shooter and the victim, the victim's bumbling friends, the residents who witnessed it, the neighbors who heard about it, the cops assigned to investigate, the members of the church where Sportcoat was a deacon, the neighborhood's mobsters (and their families).

All these people's lives overlap in ways that few understand in the beginning, and McBride's gentle teasing out of these unlikely but deeply meaningful connections—and the humor and warmth with which he does it—is what captured me.
Profile Image for Candie.
310 reviews97 followers
April 25, 2020
I seem to be in the minority here but for some reason I just couldn't really get into this book. I thought it was good and the characters were flawed and real individuals who I genuinely enjoyed, but something was missing for me. There was nothing that really stood out that will make this book memorable for me and it was pretty predictable. I think it was the writing style itself that I didn't connect to. I'm not a very good person with small talk and chit chat and that was basically what the majority of the book was centered around. It had a lot of characters who just liked to talk a lot about their day. I love my grandmother to pieces but it felt like one of my weekly two hour phone calls with her.

Overall, I enjoyed it okay while I was reading it but unfortunately I don't think it will leave any kind of lasting impression. If you are into purely character driven stories, you may enjoy this though as it does seem to have very good reviews.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,921 reviews35.4k followers
June 23, 2020
Big Bang Beginning....
....followed by lengthy varied stories and descriptions!

I had to force myself to FOCUS for the LONGEST time.......
Slowly ... very slowly my authentic 👀 ‘bright-eye-bushy-tale’, interest took hold....
but not until around 50 or 60% percent. I started to pause with real intrigued when I reached the chapter,
“You Have No Idea What’s Coming”.

As for what’s coming......
....here’s a look at the table of Contents:
Jesus’s Cheese,
A Dead Man,
Running Off,
The Governor,
The March of Ants,
The Dig,
The Country Girl,
You Have No Idea What’s Coming,
May God Hold You,
Plant Man,
New Dirt,
281 Delphi,
Last Octobers,
Sister Paul,

Deacon, Cuffy Lambkins, (Sportcoat), of the local Baptist Church, was
....funny, pathetic, flamboyant, argumentative, mysterious, and an old geezer alcoholic.

For a long time we wonder why he shot 19 year old, Deems Clemens, a local drug dealer. (a shocker to all who knew him in the community).

Sportcoat and Deems shared ancient history together; background stories unfold.

We meet many ( cuckoo) residents from Cause House, (the housing projects)....in Brooklyn during the 60’s and 70’s.
*Hot Sausage* was Deacon’s best buddy.
Hetti, was his dead wife.
Other characters you’ll meet are:
Joe Peck, Bunch Moon, Sister Gee, Sergeant Potts Mullen, ( Potts), The Elephant,
Mr. Guido Elefante, Bum-Bum, Sister Paul, Dominic Lefleur, Miss Izi, Marjorie Delany, etc.

This book is part hoot-hilarious....and part foresightful.
I think it’s accurate to say it’s a great tribute to New York City ... back in the day.
1969 was a memorable year for many of us old farts.
Drugs, sex, and Rock ‘n’ roll....
along with church folks, crooks, mobsters, cops....
and politicians.

Disjointed somewhat for me - ( the first half of the book)...
But overall it’s an irresistible tragicomic tale.

The last portion of this novel is by far what made this book great for me.

A couple of excerpts:
“We are Christian people, Mr. Lefleur. Their music is too loud and they fall out and speak in tongues and so forth when they gets filled with Holy Spirit, and we don’t do that here. But the book of Hebrews twelve fourteen days, ‘Strive for peace with everyone’”.

“Sportcoat, sweating, felt irritable and weak. He glanced over his shoulder and noticed the white-haired elderly security guard station near the front door. The guard folded his newspaper. for the second time that day, Sportcoat felt an unusual feeling: anger, which was overcome again by fear, and the usual feeling of utter confusion and helplessness. He didn’t like being this far from the ‘Cause Houses’. Anything could happen out here in New York”
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,301 reviews119 followers
March 10, 2020
McBride has brilliantly written a highly energetic story encompassing a multitude of characters that circle the Five Ends Baptist Church where his main character, Sportcoat, is a Deacon. Sportcoat is a character that Nora Zeale Hurston would have loved to have created. He is a hard-drinking, odd-job handyman that lost his wife two years ago (but continues to argue with her ghost almost continually), defied death multiple times, coached a youth baseball team and taught Sunday School.

On one fateful day in 1969, Sportcoat goes to the Cause Houses plaza (a fictionalized version of the Brooklyn housing project where McBride grew up); walks up to his onetime star pitcher that currently sells heroin, and shoots him. Deems Clemens is fast and ducked—so only his ear was shot off. Sixteen witnesses saw it all, and every one of them believe that Sportcoat is a ‘dead’ man. Once Sportcoat sobers up a bit, he refuses to believe that he would have done any such thing. What the shooting does do is set off a series of events—like falling dominoes—leading to mobsters of various ethnicities, a rare artifact stolen during WWII, a charming detective close to retirement, women gardeners entranced with moonflowers, and much more.

This mystery/crime novel encompasses a community filled with memorable characters that you won’t soon forget. It also includes plenty of humor! [Poor Earl, the crime-bosses’ enforcer, is thwarted not once, but three times, by Rube Goldberg-like machinations.] Highly recommend this beautifully told story that reminds us of our humanity—flaws and all.
Profile Image for Liz.
1,962 reviews2,410 followers
December 10, 2020
I was so enchanted by The Good Lord Bird, I was anxious to listen to Deacon King Kong. Once again, McBride has created a whole swath of colorful characters. And his command of the dialogue is spectacular. He has also painted a scene in the projects that is easy to envision. But this is a more confusing book than TGLB.
The story starts in 1969 when Sportcoat, an elderly church Deacon, walks up to a young drug dealer and shoots him. There are loads of witnesses, but no one turns him in, not even the undercover cop. And he doesn’t even remember doing it.
At times, the scenes play out like Laurel and Hardy slapstick comedy. The plot, such as it is, is loose. There are multiple storylines- revenge against Sportcoat for shooting Deems, a turf war between the drug dealers, two hunts for missing items , two surprising romances. The list goes on. Surprisingly, it’s not hard to keep up with all the players and their stories. Maybe because it’s all so much fun.
The heart of the story is the community and how they try to look out for each other.
Dominic Hoffman is a superb narrator, handling all the accents and various voices perfectly. This book has turned up on many of the best audiobooks of 2020 and Hoffman is a significant factor in that, I’m sure.
Profile Image for Dave.
2,981 reviews324 followers
September 18, 2019
Deacon King Kong is a crime novel centering around life in the projects in the 1960's New York City. What makes this novel such a standout achievement is not so much the action or plot so much as the writing which tells a whole life story in one paragraph If not in each sentence. Often the characters are revealed in poetic street raps about how they earned their nicknames and what's going on. McBride is an author I'd never heard of before, but one worth checking out.

Look, the lead character in this novel is an old codger who works here and there as a handyman and part time church deacon. His nickname is sport coat and he's on a lifelong drunken binge on hooch his friend cooks up and affectionately calls King Kong. Sport coat is haunted by his dead wife's ghost who one night followed the lights off the pier. Sport coat doesn't always remember what's going on. He hangs out mornings by the flagpole where the old folks gather, which is claimed in the afternoons by the local drug dealer. One day he walks up to Deems and plugs him a good one.

Other characters include an Italian mobster who runs deliveries out of a container in a storage yard and whose father had a soft spot for the church by the projects.

All these multi-faceted characters are brought to life by this story. No ones a superhero, a star, a gunslinger in the old west.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,311 reviews658 followers
April 24, 2020
Author James McBride is now one of my favorite authors who I shall follow and whose novels I shall read. He can write a sentence that is funny, sarcastic, tragic, and enlightening, all in one, albeit, long sentence. For those who enjoyed his National Book Award-winning novel, “The Good Lord Bird” will love this one.

The setting is in the Brooklyn projects in 1969. McBride writes the kaleidoscope of characters coexisting in a neighborhood. He includes the upright church ladies, who influence and rule the majority of social undertakings. The drug infestation is evident, along with a touch of the mafia. In his story, McBride is kind to the police force, mostly only showing the humanitarian side.

Yet, with skill he wrote in the abuses that the minorities faced daily, and the fortitude and resolve his characters possessed to maintain their dignity. At the same time, he made his characters hysterically funny and sometimes hapless.

Take the character whose namesake is the title of the novel. The Deacon King Kong, aka Sportcoat (because he always dresses up in his finery), begins the story. He’s inebriated, as always. He is a fan of the local bootleg liquor known as “King Kong”. He is toting a pistol (he can’t remember how he came upon it) and wants to talk to a kid he used to coach for baseball. The kid, Deems, had great talent and Sportcoat wanted him to use that talent to get out of the projects. He comes just to talk to Deems but becomes befuddled and shoots him. Deems is currently the major drug dealer in the project. No one shoots the dealer; but Sportcoat does. Deems was eating a sandwich when Sportcoat shot him, and well, Deems chokes. Sportcoat saves him, but the act of saving him looks a bit different to other folks. Sportcoat is also a Deacon of the First Baptist Church and is a known character of the church.

Sportcoat shot Deems publicly in the market square. There are many witnesses. The police get involved, the townsfolk, the church people. McBride weaves his eccentric characters into a story the encapsulates the life of that era. With his literary skill, McBride takes the reader on an exuberant adventure that will leave you chuckling out loud.

“Deacon King Kong” will most likely be another award-winning literary feat under McBride’s belt.
June 12, 2020
4.5 stars

James McBride is an incredible storyteller.  His characters are always fully realized and he allows readers to learn everything about them through subtle but powerful development.  

His upcoming release Deacon King Kong is a stunning look at African American and Latinx residents of the Cause Houses in south Brooklyn during the 1960s.

Members of the Five Ends Baptist Church are concerned about their deacon, Sportcoat, after the death of his wife Hettie.  The old man has been an alcoholic for years, nipping the homemade liquor called King Kong in the basement, but he's quickly spiraling.  Bad health has followed him his whole life, from South Carolina to New York, and yet the man continues to cheat death.

Then comes the day that Sportcoat walks up to the flagpole where the young man called Deems is dealing drugs and shoots him with an old .38.  Death is sure to find Sportcoat now that the top drug dealer in the Cause has been shot.

What follows is the incredible story of the people affected by the shooting: from the victim and the witnesses to the local police officers and the Italian mob.  All the characters eventually connect in surprising and clever ways to share a poignant and often hilarious tale of faith and change in the whirlwind of 1960s New York.

The characters and their community are crystal clear in my mind and I didn't want their story to end.  
If you're a fan of James McBride, literary fiction, or are just searching for an atmospheric story to get lost in, you'll want to pick up Deacon King Kong.

Thanks to Riverhead Books and Edelweiss for providing a DRC in exchange for my honest review.  Deacon King Kong is scheduled for release on March 3, 2020.

For more reviews, visit www.rootsandreads.wordpress.com
Profile Image for Toni.
633 reviews198 followers
July 23, 2020
☀️Had the privilege to listen in on Levar Burton interview and chat with James McBride last night on a webinar! Such talented men! James talked about growing up in church, with the characters in his book reminiscent of real people in his life. He is brilliant with words. “The business of life is the only business there is.” Also, “A library or bookstore is freedom.” Wonderful!

Oprah, good pick!!!

James McBride is a master storyteller that will keep your interest until the very last word. This book, this novel, this saga takes place in 1969, in the hardest hit areas of New York, right before the economic downturn of the 1970's. No one feels this economic slump harder than the disenfranchised people of the outer boroughs of New York City. But this group has survived here for generations: the Irish, Italians, Jews and the "Negros" who move up from the South in the 1940's. They're forced to 'coexist' until *Satan starts to really slip in during the mid-sixties.
A powerful, honest, raw, funny, heartbreaking and beautiful story of some of those people.

* Heroin
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,714 reviews638 followers
April 25, 2022

"There’s a drug war brewing. You don’t want your guy or your church in the middle of it. These drug lords are a different breed. They don’t play by the rules like the old crooks did. There’s no handshake or silent agreements, no looking the other way. Nobody’s safe. Nothing’s sacred. There’s too much money involved.”"

Brooklyn (and NYC in general) is fraught in McBride’s novel of later 20th century Black American life.

"“We ain’t tearing down our community, brother. We’re building it up. Look at all the businesses I got. The jobs we’re providing. The help we give people. Is the white man opening car washes? Is he running car-rental places? Restaurants? Is he giving us jobs?

There is local history and a broader swath of American history

"“Oh, I bought an old Packard back in fifty-two. I wasn’t following the Ten Commandments back in them days, Sister. I had no license or papers or nothing when I come to New York, on account of I hoisted a shot, a sip, and a nip of spirits from time to time in them days.
“I bought that car and let Sport here register the dang thing for me. Sport’s good at talking to white folks. He went down to motor vehicles with my birth certificate and got the license and all the papers and everything. One colored looks just like another down there."

I am still searching for the entire reason why Deacon King Kong reminds me of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, but I believe another GR reviewer has captured much of it in his review of Barth’s book: “This book is a sheer marvel… it's awash in lyrical excess, bawdy humor, historical satire, human vice, roguish fools, epic intent, and pirates and Indians and prostitutes and poets, oh my! The sheer life force of this novel is amazing, the prose is masterful and wickedly funny, and the journey is like nothing I've ever been on before.” https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

There are a lot of differences between Deacon King Kong and The Sot-Weed Factor, but each author is a master of prose and has a devilish talent of integrating plot, true historical events, and humor.

There are so many larger-than-life characters whose actions are as predictable as Chicago weather (though this is of course NYC). And McBride can write, boy howdy can he write.

"“You don’t have to eat my head off about it. The Irish got kicked and booted the same way.”
“We ain’t talking about them.”
“No we’re not. You were talking about the church money. It’s got nothing to do with this trouble,” Potts said.
“It’s got everything to do with it. That Christmas Club money is all we can control. We can’t stop these drug dealers from selling poison in front our houses. Or make the city stop sending our kids to lousy schools. We can’t stop folks from blaming us for everything gone wrong in New York, or stop the army from calling our sons to Vietnam after them Vietcong done cut the white soldiers’ toenails too short to walk. But the little nickels and dimes we saved up so we can give our kids ten minutes of love at Christmastime, that’s ours to control.”"


"You lived a life of disappointment and suffering, of too-hot summers and too-cold winters, surviving in apartments with crummy stoves that didn’t work and windows that didn’t open and toilets that didn’t flush and lead paint that flecked off the walls and poisoned your children, living in awful, dreary apartments built to house Italians who came to America to work the docks, which had emptied of boats, ships, tankers, dreams, money, and opportunity the moment the colored and the Latinos arrived. And still New York blamed you for all its problems. And who can you blame? You were the one who chose to live here, in this hard town with its hard people, the financial capital of the world, land of opportunity for the white man and a tundra of spent dreams and empty promises for anyone else stupid enough to believe the hype."

This book has many of the elements that I have come to value in my reading:
It made me think;
Its characters conveyed real life;
It compelled reconsideration of life’s experiences in a different context;
It caused me to laugh out loud; and,
I found myself wanting to read passages to someone else.
Profile Image for Tracy .
743 reviews12 followers
February 4, 2023
Loved, loved, loved Deacon King Kong. Tremendously poignant, and with a depth that touches on numerous profound present day social issues. The characters all have extraordinary vibrancy and each taught me a lot. Whether discussing alcoholism, poverty, marginalization, community rituals or simply celebrating good times with friends, there was always something new for me to reflect upon. There is also a lot of hilarity, love, trust and loyalty - present day and reminiscent - which balances out the plot flawlessly.

I was very happy for Mr. McBride when I found out 'Deacon King Kong' was nominated for the prestigious Andrew Carnegie Medal by the American Library Association. A more than deserving nominee, Mr. McBride is a prophetic and powerful social justice change agent for one and all.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,822 reviews499 followers
March 23, 2020
“There were a lot of theories floating around the projects as to why old Sportcoat – a wiry, laughing, brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed, and drank his way through the Cause Houses for a good part of his seventy-one years – shot the most ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen.”

In Brooklyn, New York in the late 1960s Cuffy Lambkin (commonly known as Sportcoat), a deacon of the Five Ends Baptist Church, shot 19 year old drug dealer Deems Clemens. Sportcoat had no recollection of having done this, since he was usually at least a bit tipsy - his preferred drink was home made hooch called King Kong. Unfortunately for Sportcoat, there were many witnesses to the shooting. What follows is a story that is part mystery, part shaggy dog story that is often very funny and is always entirely wonderful.

Many of the characters live in a Housing project called Cause Houses. The project is overseen by the Housing Authority honchos “...who did not like their afternoon naps disturbed with minor complaints about ants, toilets, murders, child molestation, rape, heatless apartments, and lead paint that shrunk children’s brains to the size of a full-grown pea in one of their Brooklyn locations, unless they wanted a new home sleeping on a bench at the Port Authority bus terminal.”

There are cops and mobsters longing for love, a hidden object of great value, an impending drug war, two inept assassins, an unexplained cheese shipment and a collection of colorful characters. I loved the way the author intertwined the stories of the people whose lives centered around Five Ends and the local mobsters. When one of the mobsters visits 104 year old church lady Sister Paul, she tells him “I’ve been around the sun one hundred and four whole times, and nobody’s explained nothing to me. I read the book on not being explained to. That’s called being an old colored woman, sir.” Even Sportcoat’s dead wife Hettie plays a role. I also learned a new expression that I am sure I’ll find useful: “your cheese has slipped off your cracker”. I loved this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,474 reviews2,307 followers
April 4, 2021
Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction 2021
Okay, I see why Barack Obama is recommending this: James McBride has produced an explosive, genre-bending extravaganza that can be described as a historical novel, a farce, a comic novel, a portrayal of a milieu, and a social critique. It's both funny and dark, playful and serious. It's 1969, and drunken 71-year-old church deacon Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin shoots off Deems Clemens' ear in plain daylight and in front of 16 witnesses. Sportcoat used to be Deems' baseball coach back when the now 19-year-old was a promising young athlete. Now, Deems is the most dangerous heroin dealer in the projects, and Sportcoat is an aging alcoholic handyman who hallucinates about his dead wife. In an improbable comic twist, neither the police nor the syndicate behind Deems' operation are able to get a hold of Sportcoat, who stumbles through the story, the neighbourhood and his own life, opening to the door to a whole array of captivating characters trying to survive in New York City...

A lonely mafia don, an infantuated policeman, tough church ladies, an Irish bagle mogul with a secret German treasure, a Nation of Islan convert named Soup, and, you know, a colony of Colombian ants (yes, the actual animals): There is a lot going on in this book, but inseatd of becoming a convoluted mess, the plotlines are so well-orchestrated that it pulls the reader right in. In the center of all the exuberant outrageousness, there is a tender heart though, as this is largely a story about people, mainly PoC and immigrants, with tough luck trying to navigate a hostile environment: Central themes are the Christmas money, so the money the people at the church save throughout the year to be able to buy presents for the children (even in a world of poverty, heroin, and crime, stealing these savings seems like a step too far), and Sportcoat's ability to make plants grow in improbable circumstances. And then there's the backstory of the people who build the church, who came to New York fleeing racism in the South...

Apparently, the setting is crafted after Red Hook, the housing project where the author grew up, and its Baptist church. And the reader feels the deep empathy McBride has for his characters, who chase after their dead ones' memories, after what they perceive as justice, and after each other, while the wealthier inhabitants of New York City simply do not feature in this world. Much like the humor in Joshua Whithead's Jonny Appleseed, the humor on "Deacon King Kong" is partly employed as a coping technique.

A wonderful, immersive, intelligent read.
Profile Image for Neale .
286 reviews126 followers
February 7, 2021
Shortlisted for the 2021 ToB.

The novel opens with the main protagonist, Sportcoat, trying to shoot the local drug dealer in the face. True to his character he fails, only managing to blow an ear off. This action, successful or not, affects every major character in this novel. And every major character in this novel has their own story, their own story that somehow, sometimes tenuously, connects to the main narrative. It is quite impressive how all these stories link and come together at the end.

Sportcoat is 71 years old, a deacon at the Five Ends Baptist Church, and a raging alcoholic. Sportcoat is only one nickname used by the members of the church and the people who live in the Cause Houses. He is the character that everybody knows, the drunk that seems to be everywhere, the type of character whose nicknames are often preceded by the adjective “harmless”.

An adjective that no longer suits after the botched shooting. Everybody is baffled, including Sportcoat himself, as to why he would do such a thing. The drug dealer, Deems Clemens, was a favourite pupil Sportcoat taught at Sunday School, and coached at baseball. The proverbial golden child with a cannon for an arm, who was going to grow up and play in the major leagues before becoming a drug dealer.

So now everybody is just waiting for Deems to exact revenge, avoiding Sportcoat like a bad smell. while Sportcoat remains blissfully unaware that the event even happened.

This is only one arc of the narrative. Another major character, a gangster known as the Elephant, is visited by an old Irish gangster known as the Governor, nicknames abound in this novel. The Governor looked after the Elephant’s father while his father was in prison. His father was released from prison before the Governor, and apparently, he was holding on to a possession for the Governor awaiting his release. Unfortunately, the Elephant’s father has passed away and he has no idea where this possession is.

Then there is the archetypal Irish policeman. You know the story, busted back to uniform, once a detective, months away from retirement. Sergeant Potts is the officer dragged into the narrative, charged with investigating the shooting. Potts is the type who used to try to save the world, but now, with age and wisdom, knows it is sometimes impossible.

Apart from a wonderful plot, the strength of this novel resides in the characters. Not just the major characters. Every character in this novel, and the list is long, is beautifully written. They are so real, stooped with age, wracked with arthritis, lonely for love, they feel like they exist outside the confining covers of the book.

Another strength, the humour. The whole novel retains a humorous vibe, but there are some chapters that are just laugh out loud moments. The poor hitman sent to dispatch Sportcoat and his consistent failures spring to mind.

There is just so much going on in this novel, a shipment of cheese that always turns up that nobody seems to know anything about. An invasion of red ants that follow the cheese. The ants almost have an entire chapter devoted to them. Two love stories.

With all that is going on, you may think it easy to become lost, drowned in the diverging narratives, lost in the countless cast of characters, but you never do. The reader never feels overburdened or clueless. McBride guides them through.

This is a brilliant novel, with an ending that is just so good. 5 Stars.
Profile Image for Raymond.
330 reviews238 followers
May 30, 2020
"A lot of saints don't start off well, but they end that way."

McBride's novel tells the story of a church deacon named Sportcoat, Deacon King Kong is his nickname, who randomly shoots a drug dealer and no one knows why. Throughout the novel the reader is introduced to many other characters in 1960s Brooklyn who all seem unconnected at first but whose lives become more intertwined by the end. Its a funny and serious book, a good piece of escapism. McBride has a way with words, he is very descriptive and vivid. The ending left me wanting more, there was some aspects that I wish were resolved more concretely. 3.5 stars
Profile Image for Jonathan K (Max Outlier).
606 reviews111 followers
August 1, 2020
Storytelling at its best!

It's not often stories like these cross the radar. Having read others by James, this was truly unexpected. The world he's created with Deacon, aka Sportcoat, a hard-drinking, storyteller with a heart of gold, and his sidekick, Hot Sausage, is one filled with challenge, cops, drug dealers, Mafia types and church women. The use of hilarious ghetto phrases (Yo cheese done slipped off yo cracker) adds to the fun, while the plot unravels steadily. Driven by themes of redemption, loyalty, trust and faith, Deacon clings to the 'notion' of his deceased wife who acts as his guide. While immersed in the Bedford Stuyvesant/Brooklyn community, I couldn't help but think of Richard Russo's books, though his focus is small towns. Characters of depth, plot twists and humor are important elements for reader engagement. McBride demonstrates his mastery by creating a compelling story that lingers in our hearts and minds.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,040 followers
January 21, 2021
A cast of nicknamed characters in 1960s Brooklyn swirl through this novel - it's the minor Italian crime lords and the retiring Black church members making up the majority. The humor actually hit as funny to me (for once, a rarity.) McBride repeats segments as the narrative shifts between characters, so much so that I kept thinking my Kindle had skipped back. I would have enjoyed it more if he had done this less, but found it overall entertaining. Even though there is a shooting that the story revolves around and a few murders, it's feels more... heartwarming? There is even a love story or two in there, but not of a typical kind.

And now I feel I should read his earlier novels, which I never have. I was pushed into reading this because it is on the shortlist for the Tournament of books, where I expect it will do well.
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,338 reviews440 followers
July 30, 2020
Brooklyn 1969. A housing project with a view of the Statue of Liberty. Heroin is beginning its invasive inroads into the population. That's the setup. Populated with the most colorful, diverse cast imaginable, award winner James McBride has accomplished the difficult feat of making each character come alive, every set up believable and relatable. As their stories are revealed and intertwine, the rascals and heroes of these mean streets are presented with such heart and beauty, I was sorry when it wrapped up. The writer who came to mind most clearly during the reading was Jimmy Breslin, who shares his insider's love of New York, his journalistic background, his talent for dialogue and beautifully wrought farce. Which is not to omit the larger implications behind the humor. Well done.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
October 30, 2020
This James McBride can write! After reading a slew of grim, apocalyptic books I turned to the kind of book people used to call “rollicking,” where we meet a wild cast of nicknamed characters who get involved in a wild goose chase of an adventure. Now, in keeping with the random synchronicity of my reading, this book does document a time, 1969, when knives changed to guns as booze turned to heroin in Brooklyn, it doesn’t lie about that, but the emphasis in the story is more on hope than many of the books also about the turn to drugs and the ultra-violence I read such as Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.

Deacon King Kong is less about the horrors and more about storytelling as the glue that holds a community of diverse elements--folks from Louisiana, Barbados, Puerto Rico, and so on--together. A paen to a time when we were less divided based on our differences than today, less angry and fearful. As someone who lived and loved 1969, it felt very nostalgic to me in many ways.

The story is kind of a hoot. It opens with a bang as loveable drunk Sportcoat (Cuffy Lambkins, the Deacon of the book’s title, who likes to drink a local moonshine, King Kong) shoots the best baseball player he has ever coached, Deems, who is now the Cause House Projects Brooklyn neighborhood drug dealer. Basically shoots off his ear . So that’s a thread. Will Deems find and kill his old coach?! Will he ever play baseball again?!

There are many threads in this book, but the central shaggy dog story is about a guy who wants help finding a valuable piece of art work said to be worth 3 million. Uh huh, right, and if you believe that I got a bridge out of Brooklyn I’ll sell ya cheap; in a poor neighborhood, these schemes abound. And no one knows where this piece of artwork is. . . until a woman more than a hundred years old shares some clues. A fun, funny, rollicking book, with an unlikely romance between an older black church lady and an even older Irish cop that gives the tale warmth.

Some key characters:

*Hot Sausage, Deacon’s best buddy.
*Hetti, Deacon’s dead wife, whom DEacon talks to throughout the book
*Bunch Moon
*Sister Gee, who secretly and at first sight after years of being alone seems to fall in love with:
*Sergeant Potts Mullen, ( Potts), who has the same feelings about Sister Gee
The Elephant, Mr. Guido Elefante, an Eye-talian mobster (who just may redeem himself by engineering the transfer of said artwork back to the old country for a lot of moolah)
*And a parade of ants that come out a couple times a year
Profile Image for LaDonna.
174 reviews2,452 followers
April 6, 2020
I have been very anxious about reviewing this book. I found myself constantly bouncing between 2 stars, one minute, and 4 stars the next. James McBride definitely takes his readers on a wild roller coaster ride with Deacon King Kong . There were moments that I did not want to put the book down. And, then, there were moments that I was ready to throw the book at the wall and pick up something else.

As a reader, I want to thank James McBride with leaving me with some jewels that I shall always remember:
"...a man who doesn't trust cannot be trusted"

"You got to be strong to [be] old"

However, when it was all said and done, the book just did consistently hold my attention and keep my interests. The best way I can describe it is back to the roller coaster analogy. However, there are two coasters. One with several hills, flips and dips. And, another that looks like it is going to thrill you, but once you get on, you realize that it is all an optical illusion. It is just a baby roller coaster that you wish you never stood in line for. Unfortunately, Deacon King Kong is the latter.
Profile Image for Samantha.
1,632 reviews78 followers
June 17, 2020
Lord save us all from the book hype machine.

Deacon King Kong was charming and clever, and McBride’s chops are a writer are valid, but this book was way, way overhyped.

I had lofty expectations for this after reading loads of glowing reviews and endorsements, but for me it was...just ok.

The humor is notable and the plot is structurally interesting (or at least had the potential to be) but on the whole it’s a slow read (and not in a good way), too dialogue driven, and largely fails to engage.

I kept waiting for all of the chattiness of the prose to culminate in something meaningful, but the book just never got there.

*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*
Profile Image for Dwayne.
118 reviews114 followers
October 14, 2021
When I heard of the premise for this book, I wasn't very excited, even when reviews were ecstatic. Still, there was no way I was gonna miss a new book from James McBride- whether good or bad, I was gonna read it. I can now confirm that he's done it again. While not engrossing as The Good Lord Bird, the best I've read by him so far, this one is brilliant in its own way and almost as irreverent. It's a little long, but I loved the cast of characters on display and their connection to one another. It's a tight-wire act, but McBride balances it all beautifully. As the fourth book I've read from him, he hasn't missed yet.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,415 reviews7,420 followers
July 6, 2020
Find all of my reviews at: https://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

My hold for this latest release by James McBride just so happened to coincide with the group read being conducted by . . . . .

Guaranteeing a nearly perfect rating from the masses and broadcasting my wrongreader status far and wide. The premise here starts off fairly simple . . . .

“A cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.

What follows is a story about the neighborhood surrounding the Five Points Baptist Church and the various characters who reside near there. Church ladies, maintenance men with a government cheese side hustle, bumbling hitmen, a mobster known as the Elephant, and on and on. Serious messages are delivered with humor (sometimes to the point of being the annoying slapstick variety) as you meander through the interconnected tales of a possible missing treasure and missing Christmas club cash.

This was my second go around with McBride and at this point I feel comfortable saying my lack of stars comes from a place of enjoying the tale but not the telling. I just don’t connect with his writing. This had a lot of potential, and maybe it fell victim to the hype train for me.
Profile Image for Darryl Suite.
481 reviews352 followers
December 12, 2020
Deacons, church ladies, corner boys, mobsters, moonshine, moonflowers, "white people" cheese, folklore, ghosts, gossip, looting, shooting, and goofing. This is one helluva romp. This book has heart, brains, and guts. What a wild ride.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,480 followers
May 16, 2021
I loved this book: funny, violent, witty, adventurous, moving...It takes us into the Cause project in the late 60s with a background of social revolution, drugs, gangs, cultural mixing, and baseball in a wonderfully lifelike canvas. All of the many characters are drawn with skill and love and the interweaving of their stories is both masterful and surprising. Also, the end is HIGHLY satisfying. Do read this one. Among the seven hopefuls I have read so far, I would love to see this one win the 2021 Pulitzer.

My List of Pulitzer 2021 Hopefuls: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1...
Profile Image for Jan.
1,045 reviews29 followers
April 18, 2020
This book was a balm for my soul, a portrait of a black church community circa 1969 with sweet characters (well, most of them), interconnections that stretch back decades, and a plot with more than one mystery at its heart. The poverty and racism are there, but so too are McBride’s huge heart, LOL humor and amazing writing. I loved it.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,780 reviews213 followers
February 14, 2021
“Someone else had already taken over Deems’s bench at the flagpole. Nothing here would change. Life in the Cause would lurch forward as it always did. You worked, slaved, fought off the rats, the mice, the roaches, the ants, the Housing Authority, the cops, the muggers, and now the drug dealers. You lived a life of disappointment and suffering, of too-hot summers and too-cold winters, surviving in apartments with crummy stoves that didn’t work and windows that didn’t open and toilets that didn’t flush and lead paint that flecked off the walls and poisoned your children, living in awful, dreary apartments built to house Italians who came to America to work the docks, which had emptied of boats, ships, tankers, dreams, money, and opportunity the moment the colored and the Latinos arrived. And still New York blamed you for all its problems.”

This is the story of a community in Brooklyn within sight of the Statue of Liberty centered on the activities of main character, Sportcoat, a deacon at the local church. “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.” The year is 1969.

During one of Sportcoat’s alcoholic binges, he shoots Deems, the local drug dealer. The rest of the narrative tells of the ripple effect through the area. The impact is wide-reaching – the drug network, organized crime, local police, church members, residents, and long-time friends.

The beginning of the book is spent setting up the many threads, and it can seem a bit chaotic. It is sometimes difficult to keep track of the many characters and plot points. But I have read this author before (The Good Lord Bird), so I trusted he would bring it all together and my trust was well-placed.

McBride is skilled at employing humor to offset the anguish of serious topics. For example, a hit man keeps bumbling the hit by way of a variety of bizarre mishaps. There are ongoing jokes about the definition of a deacon, a mysterious supply of cheese, and ants.

McBride has created a community of characters of many races that feel authentic. I cared about what happens to them. The threads of the story converge into a highly engaging experience. I can easily see this book being made into a film.
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