MARCH 18, 2020
A MAJOR FEATURE of the African-American writer James McBride’s books — beginning with the memoir The Color of Water (1995), a tribute to his white mother — is the large dose of humor injected into subjects that are, on the face of things, deadly serious if not sacred. Here in The Color of Water is McBride describing the way that the most important person in his life, his mother, sang in their house of worship:
Up, up, and away she went, her shrill voice climbing higher and higher, reminding us of Curly of the Three Stooges. It sounded so horrible that I often thought Rev. Owens, our minister, would get up from his seat and stop the song. He’d sit behind his pulpit in a spiritual trance, his eyes closed, clad in a long blue robe with a white scarf and billowed sleeves, as if he were prepared to float away to heaven himself, until one of Mommy’s clunker notes roused him. One eye would pop open with a jolt, as if someone had just poured cold water down his back. He’d coolly run the eye in a circle, gazing around at the congregation of forty-odd parishioners to see where the whirring noise was coming from. When his eye landed on Mommy, he’d nod as if to say, “Oh, it’s just Sister Jordan”; then he’d slip back into his spiritual trance.
McBride’s subsequent books include the novel Miracle at St. Anna (2002), set during World War II and made into a 2008 film by Spike Lee; two novels that explore slavery, Song Yet Sung (2008) and the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird (2013); Kill ’Em and Leave (2016), a biography of the soul singer James Brown; and the 2017 story collection Five-Carat Soul. To sample the irrepressibility of McBride’s jokes, look no further than the fully realized comic possibilities of the main character of The Good Lord Bird, a male fugitive slave who passes as a girl; if it’s irreverence you want, that same novel portrays the venerable ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as a lecherous gasbag. And yet 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 year is 1969, the place the all-black Causeway Housing Projects of South Brooklyn, usually called the Cause Houses or simply the Cause. One of the Cause’s residents is the 71-year-old Cuffy Lambkin, known to all as Sportcoat, an alcoholic whose vivid hallucinations involve arguments with his late wife. One day, with a great many residents watching, and for reasons that are mysterious until late in the novel, a drunken Sportcoat fires a pistol at the Cause’s young head drug dealer, aiming to kill him but succeeding only in blowing off part of his ear. This sets off a chain reaction. For if Sportcoat’s motive is hidden (even from Sportcoat himself, who at first doesn’t even remember what he did), then his action exposes the true colors of those in the Cause and beyond.
There is, for example, the drug dealer and shooting victim, Deems Clemens, who has a history with Sportcoat: years earlier, when the old man was a baseball coach for kids in the Cause, Deems was his star player. Deems’s affection for Sportcoat does not extend to forgiving the shooting; as we learn from another character’s stories about Deems, he can be both ruthless and patient, and Sportcoat’s punishment can wait. In the meantime, though, the shooting appears to have awakened something of a moral code in Deems, who stops selling drugs to little kids, grandmothers, and church members. Seeing this code cut into profits, one of Deems’s lieutenants, Lightbulb, approaches Bunch, a black man and Deems’s supplier. Lightbulb wants to be put in charge of the Cause drug territory and lets on that Deems wants to bypass Bunch for a supplier higher up: the white, mob-connected Joe Peck. Bunch, for his part, wants to make even bigger money by easing Peck out, and Sportcoat’s action figures into Bunch’s plan to realize his ambitions. As the characters’ schemes proceed on collision course, the story builds and the danger mounts.
Tangentially connected to all of this, in very different ways, are two of the novel’s most sympathetic characters, the fortysomething second-generation Italian mobster Tommy “The Elephant” Elefante and the fiftysomething Irish cop known to all as Potts. The Elephant, a lonely man with a legendary temper but the soul of a romantic, controls the Brooklyn docks. Potts, who is months away from retirement, investigates the shooting and all that it has set in motion, which brings him in contact with the Cause’s Five Ends Baptist Church (where Sportcoat is a deacon) and specifically with its longtime member Sister Gee. Like Potts, Sister Gee is married, which does nothing to dampen their instant mutual attraction.
The uneasy flirtation between this 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. Such relationships exist elsewhere in Deacon King Kong, too. Sportcoat finds a kindred spirit — at least when it comes to feelings about plants — with The Elephant’s mother, for whom he does yard work; a centenarian in a nursing home, a former resident of the Cause, reveals the long-ago tie between The Elephant’s late father and the founding of Five Ends Baptist Church. In times as divisive as ours, reading these stories is balm for the soul.
In addition to being a writer, McBride performs music, including jazz, and just as jazz artists stray from the written melody, McBride occasionally takes a detour down a wonderfully long and winding side alley:
At age three, when a young local pastor came by to bless the baby [Sportcoat], the child barfed green matter all over the pastor’s clean white shirt. The pastor announced, “He’s got the devil’s understanding,” and departed for Chicago, where he quit the gospel and became a blues singer named Tampa Red and recorded the monster hit song “Devil’s Understanding,” before dying in anonymity flat broke and crawling into history, immortalized in music studies and rock-and-roll college courses the world over, idolized by white writers and music intellectuals for his classic blues hit that was the bedrock of the forty-million-dollar Gospel Stam Music Publishing empire, from which neither he nor Sportcoat ever received a dime.
For all its focus on the day-to-day, and on the folly, nobility, and, most of all, unpredictability of individual human beings, Deacon King Kong pulls back here and there for a macro view showing a system of payoffs to politicians and police, and appeasement of community residents, with money, corruption, and criminality going round and round, like washing machine cycles in which nothing gets clean.
Still, the dominant note here is humor. Bunch’s henchman’s spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to make an example of Sportcoat are played for laughs; another running gag involves a detective’s determination to be the first black to do pretty much everything under the sun; still another has various characters trying to figure out exactly what church deacons do. And there are great one-liners: “Son, you look like a character witness for a nightmare”; “that idiot’s so dumb he lights up a room by leaving it”; and a line McBride seems determined to work into all of his books in one version or another, “your cheese done slid off your cracker.” 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.
Clifford Thompson is the author of Twin of Blackness: A Memoir, Love for Sale and Other Essays, and a novel, Signifying Nothing. His book What It is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues was published in November.