Sportcoat is the vexatious heart of James McBride’s cracking new novel...like something out of Zora Neale Hurston updated by Paul Beatty ... 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 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 ... 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 ... 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.
... a feverish love letter to New York City, people, and writing. The prose is relentless and McBride's storytelling skills shine as he drags readers at breakneck speed trough a plethora of lives, times, events, and conversations. The novel is 370 pages, but McBride has packed enough in there for a dozen novellas, and reading them all mashed together is a pleasure ... fast, deep, complex, and hilarious. McBride's prose is shimmering and moving, a living thing that has its own rhythm, pulls you in from the first page and never lets go. His story focuses on the people that make the Big Apple what it is: the strange, the poor, the insane, the mobsters. He also showcases the city's wonderful diversity, filling his pages with Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Italians, and Irish folks ... McBride has a talent for writing about big ensembles ... full of heart, humor, and compassion. It contains page-long sentences that sing and individual lines that stick to your brain like literary taffy. This is a narrative about flawed, poor people navigating an ugly, racist world and trying their best with the help of God, each other, or the bottle; their stories are unique, but the struggles are universal — and that makes this a novel about all of us. In Deacon King Kong, McBride entertains us, and shows us both the beauty and the ugliness of humanity. I say we give him another National Book Award for this one. It's that good.
The sheer volume of invention in Deacon King Kong—on the level of both character (the first chapter alone introduces twenty individuals by name) and language—commands awe. Reading it is like watching a movie in which one’s occasional impulse to ask questions is pleasantly swamped by the need to keep up with the pace of events ... And the sentences! The prose radiates a kind of chain-reaction energy. After some chapters, you feel empathetically exhausted, in the way you might feel drained by watching an overtime football game. The experience of traversing a simple flashback paragraph is like trying to leap from stone to stone across a river, except occasionally one of them turns out to be not a stone after all but a lily pad, or a shadow, and into the river you go ... A consciously suppressed anger emerges only rarely, but often enough to make you read the comedy differently. It’s as if any sentence in the book would, if allowed to flow all the way to its digressive end, empty into the pool of injustices that put these characters in the Cause Houses to begin with ... In Deacon King Kong, narrative omniscience leaves room for despair, as it must, but its over-all energy never flags. Sometimes the most affirmative thing you can do, as a storyteller, is to service that story’s momentum, in the hope that there’s some just reward for everyone in the end.
... McBride’s books do not do away with seriousness so much as isolate it: by showing what can be made funny, which turns out to be most things, McBride’s work also reveals what cannot — war, loss, hopelessness, the waste of human potential that is racism — and makes us feel such tragedy that much more sharply. As caustic as McBride’s humor can be, there is beneath it the feeling of human warmth ... All of that is present in McBride’s most recent work, the irresistible novel Deacon King Kong. In the hands of another writer, the book’s setting and plot might well be an occasion for unrelieved grimness ... The uneasy flirtation between [a] white man and black woman, which makes for some of the most wonderful scenes in the novel, is emblematic of still another characteristic of McBride’s work as a whole: his unsentimental yet tender portrayals of relationships between people of different backgrounds and skin colors ... In some ways, Deacon King Kong brings to mind the crime novels of Chester Himes, the slim, Harlem-based works featuring the detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, with their absurd, biting humor and their sympathetic portraits of ordinary folks on both sides of the law. But McBride brings his own voice to the proceedings, one of the most distinctive and welcome in contemporary literature.
Readers of The Good Lord Bird will recognize shades of McBride’s hilarious dialogue and an attention to detail that reveal a complex local history. Capturing humanity through satire and witticisms, McBride draws everyday heroes ... McBride’s novel is a rich and vivid multicultural history. But he also depicts the vulnerability of men who show most of the world only their gruff exteriors, rendered with rare and memorable tenderness.
Deacon King Kong...is a warm-blooded free-for-all, a donnybrook, a rumpus, what in baseball lingo would be called a 'rhubarb' ... [a] bountiful and compassionate comedy of errors, bloopers, and near misses. The generosity of detail and range of emotional life infused in McBride’s vision of working-class Brooklyn at the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s are more characteristic of a nineteenth-century novel than of its counterparts in the twenty-first. And McBride is so adroit at manipulating his characters through myriad complications that there will likely be readers who mistake Deacon King Kong’s high spirits and comedic invention for a lack of whatever they believe to be 'seriousness.' That’s the risk with farce: The better it’s executed, the easier it looks—until you try doing it yourself ... one of Deacon King Kong’s sustained pleasures comes in watching its author juke, dodge, and slip free from solemnity or tragedy ... Most of the major characters—Sportcoat, Deems, Potts, the Elephant, his mother, and others—are in a paradoxical manner linked by isolation or, at best, detachment from both their surroundings and their better selves. Theirs is the kind of loneliness that can be dispelled only by the sense of community McBride exalts in this book.
... a hilarious, pitch-perfect comedy set in the Brooklyn projects of the late 1960s. This alone may qualify it as one of the year’s best novels. However, McBride has constructed a story with a deeper meaning for those who choose to read beyond the plot, one that makes the work funnier, sweeter and more profound ... not simply a retelling of an ancient epic. McBride revels in constructing a hero’s journey for Sportcoat but that does not mean he relies on typical tropes or traditional endings. If Sportcoat’s finale takes a darker turn, well, it is at least one of his own choosing. There is something to be said for that.
... a story of panoramic truth ... this story is an instantly engrossing way of detangling numerous tangled cultural threads ... McBride beautifully provides backstory into each of the characters. As he does so he gives a panoramic view of the housing project, the neighborhood and other neighborhoods on the periphery. The story is teeming with information both sincere and unreliable, imbued with decades of stereotypes and lore codified through repetition.
Deacon King Kong is by turns cacophonous, slapstick, violent and meditative; it is both frightening and tender, disillusioned and romantic ... McBride’s prose is rollicking and unpredictable. Glimpsing a trail of ants, the novel halts to take note of the ants’ progress, their appetite, their trajectory. Entire life histories appear in single, rambling sentences. The banter among characters is breathtakingly funny; the chains of insults during disagreements become increasingly nonsensical, and the better for it. McBride’s older characters often refer to the Southern states they fled...in moving, bittersweet passages. If the accumulation of characters occasionally becomes exhausting, McBride rewards readers at the end with surprising revelations.
In such a climate, McBride’s affectionate, forgiving, hopeful humanism arrives like a balm, or—dare I say it?—a blessing ... feels historically unmoored; not a single character mentions Vietnam or Martin Luther King Jr. None of the men appear to be veterans of any war...Is this a weakness? Perhaps, but McBride doesn’t seem interested in writing historical fiction ... McBride’s love for this small-time, profoundly decent churchy milieu, with all its foibles, radiates from Deacon King Kong so powerfully you can almost feel the pages warm in your hands.
Though sparked by an act of violence, Deacon King Kong often spirals into comic riffs and set pieces that suggest there is both more and less at stake ... Sportscoat may appear cartoonish, a drunk in thrall to Hot Sausage’s homemade rotgut...but he gradually assumes the moral center of the narrative. And Elefante may be a hoodlum but he has scruples, refusing to sell drugs in his community. Like the rest of us, what he really wants to do is fall in love and settle down. It’s hardly surprising that Deacon King Kong should finish upbeat; what other ending could it have? Rather than Chekhov’s gun, in which a weapon introduced in Act 1 must be used by Act 3, McBride’s gunshot propels the action toward conciliation of a kind. In that regard, the novel is asking an important question: What if, instead of disorder, conflict might instead lead to harmony?
McBride’s novel evolves as a rich, polyphonic symphony. His cast of characters includes a tragic yet amusing Greek chorus of African-American and Latinx residents of the projects, representative of the 3,500 people crammed into its 256 tiny apartments ... Sportcoat is a survivor, known for his remarkable catalog of injuries. McBride outlines the assaults, both accidental and surgical, on his body in one of many dizzyingly inventive passages reminiscent of an improvised jazz riff or an endless Afrobeat track ... The novel, written with tenderness and gentle humor and the implication that even those guilty of despicable acts might yet deserve compassion, suggests that Sportcoat and especially Clemens and his cronies are a product of their environment. McBride is clearly drawing on personal experiences as he frames the moral dilemma ... McBride handles the slapstick with a deft touch. In less able hands the tonal shift at these moments might jar, but the change in register is subtle, and the cartoonish characterization of the hitman is offset by a continued sense of menace.
It’s a rare writer who can conjure a truly fulsome fictional microcosm without sacrificing momentum ... cacophonous, bighearted ... McBride’s novel is less concerned with the motives and fate of its titular character than with depicting the richness and variety and complex humanity of life in and around the Cause Houses. Within this multicultural beehive are a hundred internal dramas unfolding at once, and we are made privy to the intimacies and emotional nuances of damn near all of them ... The cast of characters is legion, and with the agility of a base runner McBride zooms from consciousness to consciousness, advancing the plot in small but powerfully charged increments ... As you can imagine, a book like this is not without its excesses. Do we need, for instance, a subplot about a melancholy gangster named the Elephant and his search for the Venus of Willendorf?...Probably not—but I thoroughly enjoyed their inclusion nonetheless ... a consummate love letter to a disappeared world, and like all good love letters, Deacon King Kong has the occasional tendency to stray too far into the weeds of digressive rhapsody, but the buoyant musicality, the sheer effervescence of McBride’s dialogue, makes every street-corner sermon and protracted, pugnacious interaction a pleasure to be savored. In truth, I could listen to these people argue and reconcile with one another for a thousand more pages.
He’s great at front-stoop banter and again he creates fond, funny portrayals of community old-timers ... But with this book he may have spread himself too thin ... He shifts from broad, slapstick comedy to shoot-’em-up violence to nostalgic meditations on New York history. There is even, for reasons I couldn’t quite grasp, a subplot involving a hidden work of art that was smuggled out of Europe after World War II. All of it is readable but none of it stands out, making the novel, much like its shambling hero, a likable but minor eccentricity.
The characters are mere microorganisms; the Cause is the body. McBride imagines the project building not just as a setting but also as a living being that speaks, laughs, cries and, most importantly, loves Deacon King Kong engages with serious issues including grief, poverty, drug use and gun violence, among others. At the same time, it is an incredibly funny novel. McBride’s comedic language and timing are precise and dynamic. Comedy is cultural, and in a truly exceptional move, he gives authentic comedic voices to characters with wide-ranging racial and cultural backgrounds ... Deacon King Kong finds a literary master at work, and reading the book’s 384 pages feels like both an invigorating short sprint and an engrossing marathon. It is a deeply meditative novel that leaves the reader swept up in a wave of concurrent and conflicting emotions. Deacon King Kong reaffirms James McBride’s position among the greatest American storytellers of our time.
The narrative flows seamlessly from buoyant and comical black jive to somber, pitch-perfect descriptives of the histories and hard lives of those doing the talking ... McBride can turn what first appear to be stereotypes — the church deacon who is an amiable drunk, the teen-age drug dealer poisoning his own neighborhood — into vivid, three-dimensional characters with engrossing life stories ... With Deacon King Kong, fiction written in prose that carries the pulsing force of life, he adds another distinguished entry to his wide-ranging repertoire.
There are moments in McBride’s story that are drop dead funny ... McBride does an amazing job of bringing everything together, tied up in a neat little package, with some unusual twists along the way ... James McBride fans will add Deacon King Kong to his list of successes. As is his strength, McBride brings characters to life through humor, pain, anger, and poignancy as few authors can.
... an unlikely recipe for a good novel, much less an excellent, often moving one .... a memorable tale of Black life in America, filled with hurt and frustration but also a perpetual undercurrent of hope. Despite occasionally running on too long, introducing too many characters (with some scanning as mere caricature), and imbuing deadly situations with too many pratfalls, the heart and humanity in his writing keep the pages turning ... Every chapter, it seems, has these riffs, this beautiful but horrible poetry that reads as the anti-Whitman ... Sportcoat sometimes seems like a character out of a tall tale, less real and more a catalyst for McBride’s subplots.
In the first weeks of March 2020, there was nothing I needed more than a book that would make me laugh out loud more times than I could count — and remind me that when disaster strikes, the most unlikely people can reach out to help ... In McBride’s hands [Brooklyn] is a place alive with humanity. Its rollicking cast of characters insult and con and disappoint one another, but they also love fiercely and close ranks when the chips are down ... With its luscious prose, exuberant wit and outsized characters, Deacon King Kong echoes brilliant storytellers from Eudora Welty to Richard Pryor. It also buzzes with the energy and deep awareness of black history that animate McBride’s wonderful biography of James Brown, Kill ‘Em and Leave.
... a beautiful, moving story, complex, layered, evocative, and often funny, as its near-Dickensian array of characters deals with the shooting’s aftermath. They range through all the predictable responses to the unexpected act: relief, joy, fear of reprisal, plus the impulse to protect the projects’ harmless champion from drug criminals and police alike ... The author tells this tale with an acute ear for the authentic cadences of urban colloquial speech; he never lapses into the language of stereotype. And underlying all the talk in this talk-rich novel are the familiar echoes of Southern evangelism, touchstones of language and culture for the projects’ black residents.
... a mouthful of hot gossip, black-market dues, colorful nicknames and a changing New York City neighborhood that renews pressure on who can and cannot be trusted ... rollicking ... This intricate, expansive, meandering plot reads like a detective thriller and ends with satisfying, borderline-corny resolutions in the form of restored love and a moonflower funeral, almost like a rom-com ... Written with the dramatic flair and petty delight of a WWE commentator, these squabbles are usually limited to verbal insults lobbed back and forth and occasionally devolve into physical skirmishes. But even violence is rendered comedically as slapstick ... This novel, like New York, is mouthy and abundant. The narrative perspective rotates through a select number of characters and, as it shifts, so too does the stylistic voice and register. In the strongest passages, McBride draws a gargantuan breath and goes off ... While the novel leans toward comedy overall, it does not overlook the social and economic realities of race and poverty outlined above ... In a city where history is paved over and where the present landscape is defined by scaffolding bent toward an ever-developing future, this novel resists the usual nostalgia for a lost artists’ utopia. Instead, it animates a neighborhood scrimping by and revitalizes another nostalgic sore spot — that of community.
McBride builds a hilariously improbable story of grace and redemption. In the face of alarming structural and personal trauma, Deacon King Kong is undeniably human and life-affirming ... Does Deacon King Kong feel original? Not especially. Some of the character archetypes have been done to the point of staleness. That said, McBride’s characters transcend their tropes because he humanizes them so well ... The actions would seem contrived and unearned without McBride’s emotional backdrop. In one sense, the reader needs this context to root for a character like Elefante; in another, the reader is unwilling to rationalize his decisions without it. Elefante’s message to a cop encapsulates McBride’s mission statement: 'A lot of saints don’t start out well, but they end that way' ... succeeds in more than just grounding unseemly characters. The universe around these characters is exceptionally thought-out and feels alive ... By focusing on intensely vulnerable characters, McBride shines a light in the darkness ... These heavy-handed themes may inform the novel, but McBride’s writing reads like a farce ... All of these elements make Deacon King Kong a relentlessly compelling read. The plot’s lightheartedness and the deeply serious subtext paint a complicated yet optimistic picture. While McBride casts overdone characters on this journey, Deacon King Kong’s righteousness bleeds through the page enough to make a cynic smile.
McBride tells that story with a light hand and throughout emphasizes a desire for connection ... Hard though life is, community binds the characters together ... Much is unpacked by the time the book reaches its lovely and heartfelt climax, as McBride shows what can happen when people set aside their differences. Highly recommended, especially for fans of Jacqueline Woodson and Spike Lee.
McBride creates tragedies, funny moments, major plot twists, and cultural and generational clashes. A sense of shared struggle emerges as diverse characters develop emotionally while navigating a world that’s changing for better and for worse. While historical fiction fans will appreciate the richly detailed approach to Brooklyn’s grittiness, McBride’s neighborhood saga ultimately sets a new standard for multidimensional fiction about people of color.
McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence. An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.
McBride...delivers a sharply compassionate shaggy dog tale of a heavy drinking Baptist deacon who shoots a drug dealer and becomes a 'walking dead man' ... With a Dickensian wealth of quirky characters, a sardonic but humane sense of humor reminiscent of Mark Twain, and cartoonish action scenes straight out of Pynchon, McBride creates a lived-in world where everybody knows everybody’s business. This generous, achingly funny novel will delight and move readers.