49 pages 1 hour read

James McBride

Deacon King Kong

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Deacon King Kong was published in 2020 and written by American author James McBride. It is an example of near-historical fiction written about American cities and social issues. McBride’s 1995 memoir about growing up in a mixed-race family in Brooklyn, The Color of Water, was both a commercial and critical success, and his own life experience aligns with some of the narratives and issues in Deacon King Kong.

McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award in 2013, and he was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2015 by President Obama for his important literary work on racial narratives. McBride’s other artistic achievements include holding the title of Writer-in-Residence at New York University, musical composing and performing as a saxophonist, and work on several major film adaptations of his books. He has received numerous other awards from various artistic groups, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

This guide refers to the Riverhead Books hardback edition.

Plot Summary

Deacon King Kong takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood during the fall of 1969. Although the book follows a variety of characters, the protagonist is an elderly Black man named Cuffy Lambkin—nicknamed Sportcoat—living in a housing project called the Cause Houses. An alcoholic who was once a baseball coach and umpire, Sportcoat approaches a young drug dealer from the Cause named Deems Clemens and attempts to kill Deems by shooting him. Deems loses an ear but survives. Everyone in the Cause is baffled by the shooting because Sportcoat mentored and cared for Deems in his childhood and adolescence. Sportcoat continues to mourn his wife Hettie, who died two years before the story takes place. The couple was involved in their local neighborhood church, Five Ends Baptist, and many of the novel’s characters are connected to the church somehow. Hettie presumably died by drowning in the harbor nearby, and her body was retrieved by a local, Italian mobster’s (Thomas Elefante’s) men.

Another story thread involves Elefante, nicknamed “The Elephant” because of his last name. He inherited a smuggling business from his father and fronts it with construction, trucking, and storage businesses. One night, a mysterious Irishman (“the Governor,” or Driscoll Sturgess) tells Elefante that he was friends with Elefante’s father and needs help recovering a valuable artifact Elefante’s father hid for him. Elefante doesn’t know where it is; however, after meeting the Irishman’s daughter, Melissa, Elefante quickly falls in love with her and agrees to help the Irishman.

Meanwhile, the drug ring that Deems is involved in tries to retaliate against Sportcoat for the shooting, bringing violence and conflict to the neighborhood. This tension heightens the unrest and danger that older residents feel as a result of hard drugs like heroin having more of a presence in the projects. The drugs lead to an increase in crime and violence and trap young people in a cycle of poverty, addiction, and dependency. As Deems tries to work his way up the ladder of his drug circle, the tension and violence escalate, resulting in death, injury, and threats to the community.

Sportcoat and Elefante’s narratives converge when the artifact—a small statue of a fertility goddess nicknamed the Venus of Willendorf—turns out to be hidden in a brick of the Five Ends Church’s back wall. The relationship between Sportcoat and Elefante restores a sense of justice to the neighborhood, and various characters enact positive change in their own lives and the life of the neighborhood despite the many obstacles that society places in their way. 

Deacon King Kong explores the culture and conflicts of New York City’s neighborhoods during the late-20th century and how they changed in response to crime and social change. The American dream is critically examined as minority races were persecuted and commodified by White people and rising generations of impoverished neighborhoods were prevented from reaching their full potential. The experience of gender is also explored through the storylines of Black women in the novel, who experience varying degrees of freedom, self-realization, frustration, and communal memory that drive the storyline and reveal important ideas about Black oppression in the 20th century. 

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