Book review: ‘Deacon King Kong’ by James McBride

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

This is a book by Black author James McBride, a National Humanities Medal winner. It deals with life in a neighborhood in the midst of change and rife with drug culture. This information may make you want to read the book, or it may make you not want to read the book.

Five Points Baptist Church was in South Brooklyn. It was a small church that primarily served those from the nearby housing projects. At least one founding member was still alive, Sister Paul, 102, who lived in an old folks’ home in Bensonhurst. A significant feature of the church from the time it was built was the cement wall in the rear featuring the painting of Jesus with the statement above, “May God Hold You in the Palm of his Hand.” The small congregation was led by Reverend Gee and to some extent, his wife, Sister Gee. Congregants were brothers and sisters in God. There were also deacons, people who did anything that was needed to keep the church operating.

It was generally agreed that Deacon Cuffy Lambkin signed his death warrant one afternoon in September 1969. It was then that he took his old .38 Colt, walked up to 19-year-old drug dealer Deem Clemens, and shot him. Since Cuffy was drunk as usual, his point-blank shot managed only to take off part of one ear. Asked later why he did it, he couldn’t remember that he had, let alone why.

Cuffy was generally known as Sportcoat. He could fix almost anything, but his real talent was with plants. Since he was usually drunk, the fact that he could still apply his talents made him likeable and useful. He had been the organizer and coach of the projects baseball team. He still had the respect of any of the young men with whom he had worked. Until he was shot, that included Deem Clemens, the best pitcher the projects had ever seen.

Now everyone was afraid to be around Sportcoat. Drug dealers worked for suppliers, people who didn’t like their operation interfered with. And Deems was known to have a long memory and a crew of his own. Sportcoat was a walking dead man, and that meant trouble for anyone near him. Because Sportcoat had a church connection, people the drug suppliers didn’t want to stir up, the suppliers wanted to be careful in how they dealt with Sport. Sportcoat had been Deem’s baseball coach and had taught him the finer points of pitching, so Deem was still trying to figure out Sport’s motive. Besides that, Sport wasn’t going anywhere.

Five Points Baptist Church was located within sight of Tommy Elefante’s Boxcar office and warehouse. Elefante, “Elephant” to his friends and business associates, was in the trucking and warehouse business. In addition, he ran a sort of import business, from his pier, on the side. He brought in various goods, anything from cigarettes to television sets, duty free. Because he had a strict no-drugs rule and for an occasional stipend, the local police looked the other way for his late-night imports. It was a business that he had inherited from his father. Mostly because of the way drugs were changing the neighborhood, Elephant was looking to get out of the business and live a regular life. That even looked possible when a former friend of his father, The Governor, told him that Elefante’s father had been holding something of value for him that was now of no use to him. He didn’t want it to go to waste. The Governor offered a vague clue and said Elefante could have it if he found it.

It had been Elefante’s men who had pulled Sportcoat’s wife, Hattie, out of the harbor after her suicide. The dead Hattie often visited Sportcoat when he was drunk, a kind of conscience. Even she couldn’t make sense of the shooting.

Multi-talented Sportcoat had gone through life pretty much drunk. While he would drink anything alcoholic that came his way, his usual drink was King Kong, a homebrew made by his close friend, the local building maintenance man, Hot Sausage. Sausage always had a bottle or two hidden away in his furnace room.

There is considerable made of the mixed races in the projects and the Black experience with them. There are clues to solve and people welearn to care about. And then there is Jesus’s Cheese … ?

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