The first Saturday of every month, crates of cheese mysteriously appear in the boiler room of “the Cause,” a housing project in South Brooklyn that, by the end of the 1960s, had transitioned from being an Italian neighborhood to being predominantly Black and brown.
No one in James McBride’s new novel, “Deacon King Kong,” knows where the cheese comes from — not even Hot Sausage, who’s entrusted with distributing the cheese among the residents. It could be the housing authority, the mob or a benevolent cheesemonger, but no one presses too hard because it’s good cheese. I’m talking “fresh, rich, heavenly, succulent, soft, creamy, kiss-my-ass, cows-gotta-die-for-this, delightfully salty, moo-ass, good old white folks cheese.” At the front of the dairy-reception line are “all the heavy hitters of news, views, and gossip,” who, in light of a recent shooting, have plenty to talk about.
This snapshot captures several elements at play in McBride’s novel: a mouthful of hot gossip, black-market dues, colorful nicknames and a changing New York City neighborhood that renews pressure on who can and cannot be trusted.
Set in 1969, this rollicking historical novel features a motley cast of characters plucked from the neighborhood, including “hard-core souls of Five Ends Baptist,” blissful drunks (Hot Sausage and Sportcoat), an enamored police officer (Potts), a gangster ready to retire (the Elephant) and new drug dealers with something to prove (Bunch and Deems).
Our protagonist, Sportcoat, is “a walking genius, a human disaster, a sod, a medical miracle, and the greatest baseball umpire.” The archetypal amiable, gin-soaked fool kicks off the opening chapter by shooting Deems, a talented baseball pitcher who left the diamond for the flagpole, where he slings drugs. What follows is a lackadaisical manhunt for Sportcoat, revenge gone wrong and a riddled treasure hunt for a “soap”-like artifact. This intricate, expansive, meandering plot reads like a detective thriller and ends with satisfying, borderline-corny resolutions in the form of restored love and a moonflower funeral, almost like a rom-com.
If Five Ends Baptist Church is the heart of the Cause Houses, then “high grade gossip” is its lifeblood. In the Cause, everybody knows everybody and everybody makes everybody’s business their business. Public spats, “the best kind,” are frequent throughout the novel. Written with the dramatic flair and petty delight of a WWE commentator, these squabbles are usually limited to verbal insults lobbed back and forth (“You’re so tight with money your ass squeaks when you walk”) and occasionally devolve into physical skirmishes.
But even violence is rendered comedically as slapstick. Such is the case of an unlucky hitman sent to dispatch Sportcoat. In scenes reminiscent of “Home Alone,” the hitman is clocked out cold by a liquor bottle carelessly chucked over a shoulder and, shortly after, electrocuted unconscious by a malfunctioning generator.
This novel, like New York, is mouthy and abundant. The narrative perspective rotates through a select number of characters and, as it shifts, so too does the stylistic voice and register. In the strongest passages, McBride draws a gargantuan breath and goes off. Here, Sister Gee speaks of life in the projects:
“You lived a life of disappointment and suffering, of too-hot summers and too-cold winters, surviving in apartments with crummy stoves that didn’t work and windows that didn’t open and toilets that didn’t flush and lead paint that flecked off the walls and poisoned your children, living in awful, dreary apartments built to house Italians who came to America to work the docks, which had emptied of boats, ships, tankers, dreams, money, and opportunity the moment the colored and the Latinos arrived,” she says. “And still New York blamed you for all its problems.”
While the novel leans toward comedy overall, it does not overlook the social and economic realities of race and poverty outlined above.
In a city where history is paved over and where the present landscape is defined by scaffolding bent toward an ever-developing future, this novel resists the usual nostalgia for a lost artists’ utopia. Instead, it animates a neighborhood scrimping by and revitalizes another nostalgic sore spot — that of community.
“Deacon King Kong” by James McBride, Penguin Random House, $18.99