Deacon King Kong by James McBride

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Cover of Book Deacon King Kong by James McBride

This riotous, fast-paced, deeply human novel is set in the housing projects in south Brooklyn. This is NOT A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Not by a mile. But it IS Brooklyn, in all its complex dysfunction.

James McBride hit it out of the ballpark with his newest novel. I predict this book will get shortlisted for many awards and will win. It is that good, and that original. McBride won the National Book Award several years ago for The Good Lord Bird and maybe he’s heading for a reply. I hope so.

Deacon King Kong is part mystery, part contemporary fiction, part historical fiction — it is genre-defying. It just fits into the Great Books genre.

I listened to the audible version of the book and the narration is fantastic. All accents nailed – at least to my ear. At first, though, I had a bit of trouble following the narrative because it moves fast, there are many characters, and they all have nicknames. But once I settled into the book it was non-stop listening to the end. If you find it hard to follow multi-character books when listening, a print copy may be best. I may even pick up a print copy and add it to my “special shelf.”

No question this is a contender for my favorite 2020 book.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride
on March 3, 2020

From the publisher: The New York Times bestseller
"Cracking...Terrific...Deeply felt, beautifully written, and profoundly humane." -The New York Times Book Review cover
"Hilarious...A rich and vivid multicultural history." -Time Magazine
From James McBride, author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird and the bestselling modern classic The Color of Water, one of the most anticipated novels of the year: a wise and witty tale about what happens to the witnesses of a shooting.
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.


James McBride has not lived an ordinary life

I still need to read The Good Lord Bird, but I read James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water some years back. McBride has an interesting background raised one of 11 children in the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn. His mother was the daughter of an Orthodox Polish rabbi and his father a Black Baptist minster. Only a person with this diverse background could have created the amazing world of Deacon King Kong.

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
Published by Riverhead on February 7, 2006
Pages: 334

From the publisher: Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared "light-skinned" woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician, and son, explores his mother's past, as well as his own upbringing and heritage, in a poignant and powerful debut, The Color Of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother.The son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white, James McBride grew up in "orchestrated chaos" with his eleven siblings in the poor, all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. "Mommy," a fiercely protective woman with "dark eyes full of pep and fire," herded her brood to Manhattan's free cultural events, sent them off on buses to the best (and mainly Jewish) schools, demanded good grades, and commanded respect. As a young man, McBride saw his mother as a source of embarrassment, worry, and confusion—and reached thirty before he began to discover the truth about her early life and long-buried pain.
In The Color of Water, McBride retraces his mother's footsteps and, through her searing and spirited voice, recreates her remarkable story. The daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi, she was born Rachel Shilsky (actually Ruchel Dwara Zylska) in Poland on April 1, 1921. Fleeing pogroms, her family emigrated to America and ultimately settled in Suffolk, Virginia, a small town where anti-Semitism and racial tensions ran high. With candor and immediacy, Ruth describes her parents' loveless marriage; her fragile, handicapped mother; her cruel, sexually-abusive father; and the rest of the family and life she abandoned.
At seventeen, after fleeing Virginia and settling in New York City, Ruth married a black minister and founded the all- black New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in her Red Hook living room. "God is the color of water," Ruth McBride taught her children, firmly convinced that life's blessings and life's values transcend race. Twice widowed, and continually confronting overwhelming adversity and racism, Ruth's determination, drive and discipline saw her dozen children through college—and most through graduate school. At age 65, she herself received a degree in social work from Temple University.
Interspersed throughout his mother's compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty, his flirtations with drugs and violence, and his eventual self- realization and professional success. The Color of Water touches readers of all colors as a vivid portrait of growing up, a haunting meditation on race and identity, and a lyrical valentine to a mother from her son.


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