I don’t remember who suggested ‘Deacon King Kong.’ When I started reading it I got mad because I didn’t have a lot of time to sink my teeth into it, but every chance I had I forced myself to read a few pages because it was so good.
Set in 1969, the story takes place in a Brooklyn project called the Cause Houses. The characters and story line are so familiar to today’s low income housing black experience, it sucked me in with total immersion.
It’s a fun read with amazing writing. While midway through, someone told me this is Barak Obama’s favorite book and in 2016 he award the National Humanities Medal to the author, James McBride.
Here’s some of the major themes of the book…
The main character is a black deacon from a poor small church in Brooklyn. ‘King Kong’ is Deacon’s favorite home brew liquor he drinks, often to the point of drunkenness. A lot of time is spent in the church where black church culture it presented in fine detail along with some of the congregation and staff. Easily, if you’re familiar with black church, you’ll lock right into the experience.
Black project life is tragic and funny at the same time and the author takes you both places, sometimes at the same time.
Mental Health and grief
Deacon’s wife died recently and he’s having a hard time dealing with her loss. His drinking and grief are not a good combination.
What’s a good project’s story without some drug dealing involved. Deacon worked with youth who showed promise only to become the biggest dealers in the projects in their late teens. It’s frowned upon and talked about by the neighbors, but they all continue to live together.
The projects (public housing developments) create a sense of community rarely seen in other housing situations. Generations of families live among each other and the connections are as close as expected even if misunderstanding and misinformation often bring tension among neighbors.
The projects weren’t always occupied by blacks. The Italian characters are featured in their life after project living and in their associations with the current occupants.
Oh, there’s a shooting or two (or 3 or 4) in the book. Police, no snitching, rumors, accusations, revenge, and mental health, are all an outcome of gun violence.
Christmas Club money
You have to be of a certain age to remember what a Christmas Club is. Somehow, it becomes a recurring issue the Deacon has to deal with.
Back in ’69, black baseball was a thing and Deacon was a youth coach and best umpire in the projects. He had an eye for talent but at least one of his proteges turned out to be a big disappointment.
The New York Times book review described the book like this…
- A mystery novel, a crime novel, an urban farce, a portrait of a project community
- Pivots from humor to agony – at once
- African-American humor has been, for centuries a humor of survival
- The fact remains that there seems to be no real healing for what ails the Cause Houses or the city that created them
- Blacks have an infinity of suffering
Real professional writers do amazing things with words. Here’s an example from the book that sort of wraps up some of what the book’s about in one long sentence…
“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,’ ‘Porgey & Bess,’ ‘Purlie Victorious’ – and on it went, the whole business of 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.”