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Deacon King Kong by James McBride **** (of 4)

Let’s begin with some of the main characters in The Cause Housing projects of New York City, 1969: Sportscoat, Hot Sausage, Pudgy Fingers; and on the female side Sister Gee, Izi (who has been trying to get her ex-husband arrested for 22 years), and Bum-Bum. There are also Italians running illegal goods on the nearby Brooklyn docks (The Elephant), Irish cops, and Puerto Rican hotheads, but most of the story revolves around Sportscoat, a happy-go-lucky, lifelong drunk, now entering his eighth decade of life.

We see a lot of the projects by eavesdropping on long-winded, seemingly aimless conversations between Sportscoat and Hot Sausage while they sip homemade, 100-proof (at least) King Kong. It’s concocted in the boiler room of one of the apartment buildings. First you make the King, that’s the easy part. Then you make the Kong.

While there is plenty of humor and some of the best insults I’ve ever heard, looking back at 1969 New York we can see how blind we were to systemic racism. The projects were traps for Blacks escaping the Jim Crow south only to encounter less overt, but equally pervasive racism in the north. Jobs are scarce, schools are terrible, the housing authority is unresponsive, and upward mobility, aside from taking a gamble in the illegal drug trade (about to be shut off as an avenue to wealth by the burgeoning pipeline of Black men headed to jail), is nonexistant.

Five Ends Baptist Church is a community centerpiece, but it is Sportscoat, an aging drunk, who garners most of our respect and admiration. Sportscoat ignores his own well-being in service to the lives of others, and whenever he can, he inevitably does the right thing. He’s a hero.

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