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Deacon King Kong

by James McBride

Deacon King Kong by James McBride X
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 384 pages
    Feb 2021, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Print Excerpt

Jesus's Cheese

Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That's the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.

There were a lot of theories floating around the projects as to why old Sportcoat — a wiry, laughing, brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed, and drank his way through the Cause Houses for a good part of his seventy-one years — shot the most ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen. He had no enemies. He had coached the projects baseball team for fourteen years. His late wife, Hettie, had been the Christmas Club treasurer of his church. He was a peaceful man beloved by all. So what happened?

The morning after the shooting, the daily gathering of retired city workers, flophouse bums, bored housewives, and ex-convicts who congregated in the middle of the projects at the park bench near the flagpole to sip free coffee and salute Old Glory as it was raised to the sky had all kinds of theories about why old Sportcoat did it.

"Sportcoat had rheumatic fever," declared Sister Clarence Gee, the president of the Cause Houses Tenant Association and wife of the minister at Five Ends Baptist Church, where Sportcoat had served for fifteen years. She told the gathering that Sportcoat was planning to preach his first-ever sermon that upcoming Friends and Family Day at Five Ends Baptist, titled "Don't Eat the Dressing Without Confessing." She also threw in that the church's Christmas Club money was missing, "but if Sportcoat took it, it was on account of that fever," she noted.

Sister T. J. Billings, known affectionately as "Bum-Bum," head usher at Five Ends, whose ex-husband was the only soul in that church's storied history to leave his wife for a man and live to tell about it (he moved to Alaska), had her own theory. She said Sportcoat shot Deems because the mysterious ants had returned to Building 9. "Sportcoat," she said grimly, "is under an evil spell. There's a mojo about."

Miss Izi Cordero, vice president of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses, who had actually been standing just thirty feet away when Sportcoat pointed his ancient peashooter at Deems's skull and cut loose, said the whole ruckus started because Sportcoat was blackmailed by a certain "evil Spanish gangster," and she knew exactly who that gangster was and planned to tell the cops all about him. Of course everybody knew she was talking about her Dominican ex-husband, Joaquin, who was the only honest numbers runner in the projects, and that she and her Joaquin hated each other's guts and each had worked to get the other arrested for the last twenty years. So there was that.

Hot Sausage, the Cause Houses janitor and Sportcoat's best friend, who raised the flag each morning and doled out free coffee care of the Cause Houses Senior Center, told the gathering that Sportcoat shot Deems on account of the annual baseball game between the Cause Houses and their rival, the Watch Houses, being canceled two years before. "Sportcoat," he said proudly, "is the only umpire both teams allowed."

But it was Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Cooking Sensation, who lived in Sportcoat's building, who best summed up everybody's feelings. Dominic had just returned from a nine-day visit to see his mother in Port-au-Prince, where he contracted and then passed around the usual strange Third World virus that floored half his building, sending residents crapping and puking and avoiding him for days-though the virus never seemed to affect him. Dominic saw the whole stupid travesty through his bathroom window as he was shaving. He walked into his kitchen, sat down to eat lunch with his teenage daughter, who was quaking with a temperature of 103, and said, "I always knew old Sportcoat would do one great thing in life."

Excerpted from Deacon King Kong by James McBride. Copyright © 2020 by James McBride. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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