Rockin’ in the Projects

After finishing James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, I’m rechristening the author Zora Neale Samuel Clemens Brer Fox McBride.[1] Not OMG! But Do Lawd! What a blast – jazz riffing Gullah-lite, not indiscriminately slung but fashioned into a plot that, though somewhat improbable in its tidy tying up at the end, delineates a complicated saga populated by characters we care enough about to shed tears. 

Even if the story hadn’t moved me, I would have kept reading for the sheer pleasure of its sentences.

Here are three:

“She was coming off her once-a-year sin jamboree, an all-night, two-fisted- booze-guzzling, swig-faced affair of delicious tongue-in-groove-licking and love-smacking with her sometimes boyfriend, Hot Sausage, until Sausage withdrew from the festivities for lack of endurance.” 

“After practice on lazy summer afternoons, he’d gather the kids around and tell stories about baseball players long dead, players from the old Negro leagues with names that sounded like brands of candy: Cool Papa Bell, Golly Honey Gibson, Smooth Rube Foster, Bullet Rogan, guys who knocked the ball five hundred feet high into the hot August air at some ballpark far away down south someplace, the stories soaring high over their heads, over the harbor, over their dirty baseball field, past the rude, red-hot projects where they lived.”

And then this masterpiece:

“And there they stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at 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 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 one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich – West Side StoryPorgy & BessPurlie 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 blacks and Latinos who cleaned 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.”[2]

Ultimately, Deacon King Kong is a comic novel, which provides McBride some leeway when it comes to implausibility. Moreover, it takes place among a community of believers, which is a prerequisite for magic realism. Some of the best dialogue comes from the protagonist Deacon Cuffy Jasper Lambkin[3] (aka Sportscoat) and the ghost of his wife Hettie, who naggingly haunts him throughout the novel, despite her having drowned two years before the action begins.

“Well, Hettie, if I weren’t taking that white man’s good hundred dollars on principle, I surely ain’t gonna take no mess from you ‘bout some fourteen dollars and nine pennies you done squirreled up in Christmas Club money and hid someplace.”

You’re not going to find ghosts or a systematic invasion of ants in The Stranger.

***

I suppose some plot summary is in order. Deacon King Kong is set in 1969 in Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn with the majority of the characters members of the Five Ends Baptist Church. Sportscoat, drunk as a coot on a potent moonshine known as King Kong, stumbles into the project courtyard and shoots Deems Clemens[4] with an antiquated .38 pistol. Back in the day, Sportscoat taught Deems Sunday School and coached him in baseball.  Deems had been a bone fide big league prospect before he abandoned that escape route for the easy money of drug trafficking. Smart, strategic, Deems is a force to be reckoned with, compassionate despite the heroin trafficking and its at its attendant horrors.

Damn, this summarizing is way too hard. I’m gonna cop out and quote the back cover.

“McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportscoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportscoat himself.”

Ultimately, it’s a novel of redemption, a glorious amalgam of love and violence, greed and generosity, teeming with vibrant characters who do justice to the human race. It’s easily the most enjoyable piece of long fiction I’ve read since Infinite Jest, which means it’s most enjoyable novel I’ve read in a quarter of a century, the most enjoyable novel I’ve read this century.

Do yourself a favor and go check it out.


[1] Kudos to former student Rachel Lauren Wolf for turning me on to this gem she described as “a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”

[2] As my wife Caroline is wont to say, “Bartender, I’ll have what he’s having.”

[3] Note the name symbolism. BTW, virtually all of the characters have nicknames.

[4] Ditto above.

3 thoughts on “Rockin’ in the Projects

  1. Hoo-boy! That was fantastic! Just finished listening to the audiobook version. (I was a bit concerned, but the voice actor did a great job, I think.) Such wonderful characters and nicknames, traditions and superstitions, mobsters, money, mojos, and more! I enjoyed their intertwining pasts and presents.

  2. Thanks, Ben. Pee Wee’s autobiography, despite its horrid content, fascinates, true Southern Gothic horror show for sure. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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