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Deacon King Kong
Cover of Deacon King Kong
Deacon King Kong
A Novel
Borrow Borrow
One of Barack Obama's "Favorite Books of the Year"
Oprah's Book Club Pick
Named one of the Top Ten Books of the Year by the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and TIME Magazine
Washington Post Notable Novel
From the author of the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird and the bestselling modern classic The Color of Water, comes one of the most celebrated novels of the year.


In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and, in front of everybody, shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range.
The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride’s funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.
As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters—caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York—overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion.
Bringing to these pages both his masterly storytelling skills and his abiding faith in humanity, James McBride has written a novel every bit as involving as The Good Lord Bird and as emotionally honest as The Color of Water. Told with insight and wit, Deacon King Kong demonstrates that love and faith live in all of us.
One of Barack Obama's "Favorite Books of the Year"
Oprah's Book Club Pick
Named one of the Top Ten Books of the Year by the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and TIME Magazine
Washington Post Notable Novel
From the author of the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird and the bestselling modern classic The Color of Water, comes one of the most celebrated novels of the year.


In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and, in front of everybody, shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range.
The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride’s funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.
As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters—caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York—overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion.
Bringing to these pages both his masterly storytelling skills and his abiding faith in humanity, James McBride has written a novel every bit as involving as The Good Lord Bird and as emotionally honest as The Color of Water. Told with insight and wit, Deacon King Kong demonstrates that love and faith live in all of us.
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  • From the book 1

    Jesus's Cheese

    Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That's the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.

    There were a lot of theories floating around the projects as to why old Sportcoat-a wiry, laughing, brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed, and drank his way through the Cause Houses for a good part of his seventy-one years-shot the most ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen. He had no enemies. He had coached the projects baseball team for fourteen years. His late wife, Hettie, had been the Christmas Club treasurer of his church. He was a peaceful man beloved by all. So what happened?

    The morning after the shooting, the daily gathering of retired city workers, flophouse bums, bored housewives, and ex-convicts who congregated in the middle of the projects at the park bench near the flagpole to sip free coffee and salute Old Glory as it was raised to the sky had all kinds of theories about why old Sportcoat did it.

    "Sportcoat had rheumatic fever," declared Sister Clarence Gee, the president of the Cause Houses Tenant Association and wife of the minister at Five Ends Baptist Church, where Sportcoat had served for fifteen years. She told the gathering that Sportcoat was planning to preach his first-ever sermon that upcoming Friends and Family Day at Five Ends Baptist, titled "Don't Eat the Dressing Without Confessing." She also threw in that the church's Christmas Club money was missing, "but if Sportcoat took it, it was on account of that fever," she noted.

    Sister T. J. Billings, known affectionately as "Bum-Bum," head usher at Five Ends, whose ex-husband was the only soul in that church's storied history to leave his wife for a man and live to tell about it (he moved to Alaska), had her own theory. She said Sportcoat shot Deems because the mysterious ants had returned to Building 9. "Sportcoat," she said grimly, "is under an evil spell. There's a mojo about."

    Miss Izi Cordero, vice president of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses, who had actually been standing just thirty feet away when Sportcoat pointed his ancient peashooter at Deems's skull and cut loose, said the whole ruckus started because Sportcoat was blackmailed by a certain "evil Spanish gangster," and she knew exactly who that gangster was and planned to tell the cops all about him. Of course everybody knew she was talking about her Dominican ex-husband, Joaquin, who was the only honest numbers runner in the projects, and that she and her Joaquin hated each other's guts and each had worked to get the other arrested for the last twenty years. So there was that.

    Hot Sausage, the Cause Houses janitor and Sportcoat's best friend, who raised the flag each morning and doled out free coffee care of the Cause Houses Senior Center, told the gathering that Sportcoat shot Deems on account of the annual baseball game between the Cause Houses and their rival, the Watch Houses, being canceled two years before. "Sportcoat," he said proudly, "is the only umpire both teams allowed."

    But it was Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Cooking Sensation, who lived in Sportcoat's building, who best summed up everybody's feelings. Dominic had just returned from a nine-day visit to see his mother in Port-au-Prince, where he contracted and then passed around the usual strange Third World virus that floored half his building, sending...
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    January 1, 2020
    The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies. It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it's just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood's most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim's name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be "the best baseball player the projects had ever seen" before he became "a poison-selling murderous meathead." Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it's Sportcoat's friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who's hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems' vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas "The Elephant" Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who's got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father's past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), 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.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from January 13, 2020
    McBride (The Good Lord Bird) delivers a sharply compassionate shaggy dog tale of a heavy drinking Baptist deacon who shoots a drug dealer and becomes a “walking dead man.” In the autumn of 1969, handyman and occasional baseball coach Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, known to his friends as “Sportcoat” because of his colorful wardrobe or as “Deacon King Kong” on account of his equal affection for a moonshine with that name, inexplicably shoots off the ear of Deems Clemens, Sportcoat’s former baseball protégé. This sets in motion a hunt for Sportcoat by Deems’s employers that draws in Tommy “Elephant” Elefante, a sweetly melancholy Italian mover of “hot goods” whose grip on the neighborhood is slipping, and scrupulous police officer “Potts” Mullen, who is on the brink of retirement. As Deems’s crew ineffectually try to murder Sportcoat, Elephant follows clues left by his dead father to find a hidden treasure, and Potts tries to keep the neighborhood safe while falling for the wife of a preacher, McBride unravels the mystery of Sportcoat’s inexplicable ire against Deems. 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.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from February 1, 2020
    National Book Award-winner McBride (Five-Carat Soul, 2017) portrays a 1969 Brooklyn neighborhood through its outsiders, from the Irish to Italians, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans who came north during the Great Migration. At 71, the titular deacon is the least likely of heroes; residents of the Cause Houses wonder how he's still alive. Barely coherent, Cuffy Sportcoat Lambkin rehearses for arguments with his late wife, Hettie, and drinks to clear his thoughts, running off to the boiler room to down some King Kong, a local white lightning, usually with his best friend, Hot Sausage. When he shoots Deems Clemens, the boy he coached in baseball who has become a drug-dealer at 19, everyone assumes the deacon's days of freedom are numbered. But all is not as it seems. As the deacon begins to reckon with his past, he also protects the young man's future and brings some stability to his community. 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.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from February 1, 2020

    This latest from National Book Award winner McBride (The Good Lord Bird) offers a snapshot of 1969 Brooklyn, focusing on a housing project called the Cause Houses and the Italian neighborhood that borders it. It's a lively place peopled by characters named Bum-Bum and Hot Sausage, with the action centered on a good-natured old drunk named Sportcoat (or Deacon King Kong, a nickname derived from his potent drink of choice). In the book's opening pages, the underemployed and recently widowed Sportcoat shoots a local drug dealer, which provides a springboard for Sportcoat's life story and the larger story of the Cause Houses. These are dark, changing times: Heroin has crept in, and the segregation that was quietly tolerated for so long becomes a greater factor in the characters' lives. But McBride tells that story with a light hand and throughout emphasizes a desire for connection, e.g., Sportcoat's for his dead wife and NYPL lifer Potts's for Miss Gee, a Cause Houses stalwart. Hard though life is, community binds the characters together. VERDICT 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. [See Prepub Alert, 9/9/19.]--Stephen Schmidt, Greenwich Lib., CT

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    October 1, 2019

    It's September 1969 in a rapidly changing Brooklyn community, where drugs are starting to flourish, African American and Latinx residents face the hostility of their Italian and Irish neighbors, and unassuming, gray-haired Baptist deacon Sportcoat walks into the courtyard of a housing project and shoots the project's drug dealer dead. McBride, here following his National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird and the story collection Five-Carat Soul, an LJ Best Book, recounts what happens next with deep-hearted humanity and a touch of wit.

    Copyright 2019 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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