Deacon King Kong. James McBride.

McBride, James. Deacon King Kong. Riverhead (Penguin Random House) New York, 2020. F;7/20.

This is a serious and at times strongly affecting story and a hard look at crime and poverty in 1969 black-neighbourhood Brooklyn. Mr McBride is an accomplished guy in his 60s, several novels to his name, apparently a pretty good tenor sax player, and a senior creative writing teacher at a university. The story is complicated and encompasses surprising variety and emotional depth. McBride’s dad was a black preacher and his mother was Jewish.

Hard-drinking Sportcoat, nick-nicknamed the Deacon (he was one in the black church that figures heavily in the plot) inexplicably tries to shoot Deems, a young former baseball protégé of his who is now a drug dealer. Organized crime is everywhere and an older Italian smuggler from simpler times (when there was honour among gangsters) is aware of an enormously valuable artifact hidden somewhere, involving the Irish blessing about the Lord holding you in the palm of his hand. Sportcoat and a dozen or more other characters develop as the various plot lines converge, intricate and credible.

The story is quite a bit more than the sum of its many parts: thriller, good-boy-turned-bad, drunk reprobate with a cool instinct for self-preservation and a heart of gold, sophisticated cops and robbers, moral ambiguity, love story, and hidden treasure. All of that coexists uneasily with an overseeing black-religious Christian benevolence that takes unto itself even suppressed rage at being poor and trapped in a racial ghetto.

A near-retired white married policeman falls in love with a slim middle-aged black woman who is deeply into the church, and the first-sight description, within the rough and murderous treachery of the rest of the plot, stood out like Tony’s vision of Maria in a near-contemporary story not that far west of Brooklyn:

She chuckled uneasily, surprised by his response, and watched him blush. Suddenly she felt her heart flutter. A charged silence descended on the room. They both felt it, felt themselves suddenly being propelled along a large chasm, feeling the irresistible urge to reach out, to reach across, to stretch their hands from opposite sides of a large, cavernous valley that was nearly impossible to cross. It was way too large, too far, just unreasonable, ridiculous.

I like the religious presence’s not being taken in a preacherly serious way. The story is at times frightening and seriously spiritual but at others sexy and funny :

Joaquin was piping Miss Krzypcinksi, the young white social worker with big boobs who couldn’t clap on beat and wouldn’t have known a salsa rhythm if it were dressed like an elephant in a bathtub, but whose wide hips moved with the kind of rhythm every man in the Cause could hear a thousand miles away.

The intelligent human reach of this mature writer reminds me of the same in young Jamel Brinkley. I seem not to have to worry so much about the falsehood of literature prize juries practicing affirmative action, when classy compelling work by people like these two exists.

Highly recommended. 9.2/8.9

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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