Dead Man Walking:
James McBride’s new novel, Deacon King Kong, set in a crumbling Brooklyn housing project in the late sixties, wraps up the history of immigrant and black lives at the fringes of a prospering city, with his exuberant prose.
Capturing the salty tang of the speech of the poor and hard-working people (the blacks were still slaves in a way, dumped with menial jobs), he tells a story of which the protagonist is an old drunk, Cuffy Lambkin, nicknamed Sportcoat by the Cause Housing community – and it is a close knit one, in spite of gang wars and basketball rivalry with the neighbourhood projects, where everyone knows and minds everyone else’s business. (The Indian equivalent of this milieu is the chawl.)
At the centre of the boisterous, tragic, romantic and criminal goings on is the Five Ends Baptist Church, of which Sportcoat is a Deacon—what exactly a deacon does is a question asked by a couple of characters, and the answers are vague. King Kong is a homemade brew that he chugs down in copious quantities.
One day, without provocation, Sportcoat, walk up to his former baseball protégé turned dreaded drug dealer, the nineteen-year-old Deems Clemens, and shoots him. Deems survives with a mutilated ear, and multiple witnesses, including an undercover cop (whose cover as a janitor is pointless, since everyone knows who he is!) pretend they did not see anything.
Deems is baffled by this senseless attack and wonders how to respond, but the tremors are felt right up the drug dealing chain; the boss, Bunch Moon, decides to take action by sending his henchman, Earl, to kill Sportcoat. His attempts, that are thwarted by fate each time, are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
The Italian mafia has gained power in the city, and their operations overlap with the rising black gangs, but all this plays out in the background, while Sportcoat, with no memory of what he has done, goes about blissfully getting sozzled and talking to his dead wife Hettie, while his best buddy Hot Sausage, frantically tries to protect him.
Around them, other dramas play out—an honest Irish cop, Kevin ‘Potts’ Mullen, who actually cares about the black and Latin American community that lives in the projects, falls for a wise black cleaning woman, Veronica Gee; there’s the lonely Italian bachelor, Tommy Elefante (called The Elephant), a smuggler, who refuses to push drugs; there is a sharp female assassin called Haroldeen, and dozens of colourful characters, whose stories intersect, get complicated and straightened out in unexpected ways. Coincidences abound, and everything gets revealed in a series of ‘Aha!’ moments, some of which the reader can predict.
McBride keeps a firm grip on all the tangled skeins and while the tone is mostly humorous, there is an underlying anger at the rampant racism in American society and the social imbalance that pushes promising young blacks into a dead end road to crime.
Deacon King Kong
By James McBride