First, the overview: Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lambkin is an elderly African American man, a deacon of the Five Ends Church in South Brooklyn that serves a project known as the Cause Houses. On a warm September morning in 1969, Sportcoat, addled by moonshine known as “King Kong,” slowly makes his way to a communal courtyard and shoots 19-year-old drug kingpin Deems Clemens in the face.
Clemens loses his ear but not his memory or his network of toughs. As he recovers at home, Sportcoat’s friends, including Hot Sausage, Dominic Lefleur the Haitian Sensation, Sister Bum-Bum and a Nation of Islam member named Soup, urge him to flee, leave the neighborhood, the state, the region. “You a walking dead man, Sport,” says Hot Sausage. As Sportcoat makes his agonizingly slow decisions about the situation, McBride raises and lowers the curtains on a community of African American and Latinx characters whose lives and needs intersect constantly.
Clemens isn’t the only person with a grudge against Sportcoat; the ladies of Five Ends Church believe his late wife, Hettie, absconded with their Christmas Club money (which might amount to $50 or $5,000), and they want it back. Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a nearby Mafia don who’s better at gardening than serious crime, also materializes when he realizes his father may have hidden someone else’s loot somewhere in the Cause Houses.
Beneath the characters and comedy is a story about how a community and its religious institutions can provide a center to keep things from falling apart completely. These men, women and children regard Five Ends Church as a beacon and a yardstick even when they have not worshiped there for weeks or decades. But the church is also the Ithaca in McBride’s unlikely epic, Sportcoat its even more unlikely Odysseus. Instead of crossing seas and tying himself to a mast, Sportcoat scuttles from one unnoticed location in the projects to another, interacting with friends and threats. Instead of a witch named Circe, our hero must contend with the formidable ghost of Hettie, who remains mum on the location of the Christmas Club funds but is quite chatty on her opinion of how low her husband has fallen.
But “Deacon King Kong” is 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this review referred to the Five Points Church; the name of the church is Five Ends. It also incorrectly stated that the character of Elefante’s father was called “The Governor.” This version has been updated.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
Deacon King Kong
By James McBride
Riverhead. 370 pp. $28