Jo’s Pick of the Week: Deacon King Kong by James McBride

An old church deacon nicknamed “Sportcoat’’ is having a rough time in his golden years. He doesn’t remember shooting a young local drug dealer in the face. He keeps having fierce arguments with his wife Hettie, who died two years ago. He can’t find his church’s Christmas box filled with parishioners’ donations. Now his best friend, Hot Sausage, warns him that a hitman is coming for him.

Sportcoat is the heart and soul of James McBride’s hilarious new novel set in the Brooklyn projects of the 1960s. He is a lovable old coot known for wearing ugly sport jackets and having a knack for growing plants. He also is a drunk who loves a homemade brew called King Kong, which sometimes harms his judgment and memory. When Sportcoat refuses to go into hiding so he isn’t killed by a drug dealer’s hitman, his friend Hot Sausage says, “Is your cheese done slid off your cracker?’’

The memorable cast of characters include the African American and Latino residents of the projects, an Irish American beat cop just waiting to retire, and a lonely Italian mob boss who moves stolen goods from a trailer nearby. McBride’s writing is exquisite and funny. He brings humanity and humor to his characters while dealing with poverty, racism, drugs and violence.

I first became acquainted with McBride’s talents when I read his novel The Good Lord Bird. The story, about a slave boy who runs away with the famous abolitionist John Brown, won the National Book Award. I remember at the time wondering how McBride made me laugh so much while reading about such a dark subject. He is a talent you don’t want to miss.

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