James McBride’s ‘Deacon King Kong’ is a Supercharged Urban Farce Lit Up by Thunderbolts of Rage

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“Deacon King Kong” is many things: a mystery novel, a crime novel, an urban farce, a portrait of a project community. There’s even some western in here. The novel is, in other words, a lot. Fortunately, it is also deeply felt, beautifully written and profoundly humane; McBride’s ability to inhabit his characters’ foibled, all-too-human interiority helps transform a fine book into a great one. He has written beautifully before, in his beloved memoir, “The Color of Water,” and, with terrifying irreverence, in his National Book Award-winning novel, “The Good Lord Bird.” But “Deacon King Kong” reads like he’s tapped a whole fresh seam of inspiration and verve. It’s clear that he’s having a blast, and his spirit of funning irreverence supercharges the entire narrative like home-brewed black lightning. McBride’s got jokes like Ali Wong’s got jokes. Like your colmado’s got jokes. I made the mistake of reading “Deacon King Kong” on the Tokyo subway and my nonstop chortling made me no friends.

But just because McBride is playing doesn’t mean he’s fooling around. For all the laughs, he never loses sight of the terrible longitudinal harm that African diasporic and Latine peoples have suffered in the New World. He doesn’t just pivot from the humor to the agony; he seems to deploy both modes at once, and it speaks to his talents that he does so with dexterous aplomb. McBride will be cracking wise and without missing a beat he’ll hurl a thunderbolt whose clarifying rage could light up half a borough: “the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a Page 1 story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich — ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Porgy & Bess,’ ‘Purlie Victorious’ — and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.”

“Deacon King Kong” brings to mind the scholar Glenda Carpio’s observation that “African-American humor has been, for centuries, a humor of survival. It has been a safety valve, a mode of minimizing pain and defeat, as well as a medium capable of expressing grievance and grief in the most artful and incisive ways. It has been a way of asserting one’s humanity in the face of pulverization and mass murder.” Turns out the good Deacon got it wrong: Our tale is an American Crime Story, just not the kind that is on TV or Broadway.

Still, not everything in “Deacon King Kong” kills. McBride undercooks a couple of his subplots, especially the druggy ones. The humor, for all its ontological merits, runs too broad in too many places. While Latines are a notable presence in the Cause Houses, McBride doesn’t give any of them real depth; his authorial sympathies focus almost entirely on the black-white binary, which is too bad. The one Haitian character brings a virus back from the island and has a thing for voodoo dolls. I wish we’d gotten more of Sister Gee and Hettie. It’s clear that the everyday heroics of these women (and countless women like them) are all that keeps the hard world of the Cause Houses from coming apart altogether but at a cost to themselves that the book seems to hint at but never really address. And for a novel set in 1969, there’s not a lot of ’60s here at all.

These deficiencies might have toppled a lesser book, but what McBride has wrought cannot be undone by even its worst flaws. The novel is like Sportcoat himself — a fool, a wonder and just as invincible. “Deacon King Kong” ends like a Shakespeare comedy — to say more would give too much away — but after all the identities are sorted and all the conflicts balmed, we are left with a Sportcoat who has become less King Kong and more Deacon, and that feels right. But for all the good old-fashioned uplift the book pushes, the fact remains that there seems to be no real healing for what ails the Cause Houses or the city that created them or ultimately Sportcoat himself; no easy cure for what drove him to drink or led Hettie into the harbor on that fateful snowy night.

Early on McBride writes that Sportcoat “never recovered from his mother’s death. The ache in his heart grew to the size of a watermelon.” One has to wonder, how big did the ache in Sportcoat’s heart become after he left his beloved South Carolina? After his wife, Hettie, drowned? How big was the ache in Hettie’s heart when she plunged into the harbor? How big is the ache in all our hearts, we people of African descent who continue to endure what Achille Mbembe has called, in another context, an infinity of suffering?

What lingers after the last page of this terrific novel is not laughter or thunderbolts or the endless resilience of communities of color but something far more unsettling: grief, like the sound of many waters, wide, dark, deep.

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