James McBride’s The Good-Lord Bird is one of my favorite novels of the last decade and one I’ve recommend to countless people. So that makes the disjointed, formless Deacon King Kong all the more disappointing. A book without a strong sense of its characters, setting, or plot, this new novel meanders from one incident to another in a dissembling prose style sure to alienate the reader.
The title character is an old drunk named Cuffy Lambkins, “Sportcoat” to his friends. Sportcoat is a resident of the Cause Houses housing project and a deacon at the small church his wife helped to found. Since his wife’s unexplained death (her body was pulled out of the nearby harbor) Sportcoat has been steadily drinking his friend’s homemade liquor, a concoction known as King Kong. One day in a drunken stupor Sportcoat stumbles over to the housing project’s fearsome teenage drug dealer Deems Clemens and shoots him in the face, disfiguring his ear.
The novel changes perspective as characters within and related to the Cause Houses await the repercussions of Sportcoat’s foolish act. Will Deems enact his own revenge once he gets out of the hospital? Who will take over Deems’ drug trade in the meantime? How much violence will ensue?
McBride’s scope is ambitious, but his talent isn’t up to the task. There are too many characters for such a short novel, many of whom have no impact on the plot and are not memorable enough to merit their inclusion. The central mysteries introduced to the plot are so mild and transparent they add nothing to the reader’s enjoyment.
One of my chief criticisms is McBride’s sloppiness. This book desperately needs editing. The book is set in 1969 and yet an adult character is supposed to have watched Mister Rogers on television as a child, even though Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted in 1968. A character referred to as being 40 years old lives with his 89 year old mother. Did she give birth at 49, in the 1920s? Even though the book is set in the sixties, nothing about the way the characters talk or act would feel out of place today, besides a scant few mentions of how well the Mets are playing.
This book took me forever to finish, and when I did I just wished I had quit after 100 pages like I wanted to.