James McBride searches for connective tissue in sprawling 'Deacon King Kong'

Andy Downing
James McBride

Deacon King Kong, the new novel from James McBride, is a dense, sprawling epic that unfolds largely within a late 1960s Brooklyn public housing project — a setting so rich with memorable characters that it forced McBride to create visual charts to keep them all straight.

“I get these big white sheets of paper from the stationery store, the kind you have on a painter’s easel, and then I draw a big circle and I place the characters’ names around the circle, in this case, Deacon King Kong, or Sportscoat, with his name at the top, and Deems’ name at the bottom,” said McBride, whose novel opens with the titular Deacon (aka Sportscoat), an elderly drunkard, placing his gun to the head of young drug dealer Deems Clemens and pulling the trigger. “And then I draw arrows connecting all of the different characters. It’s a reminder that this one has to connect with this one, and that one has to connect with that one. … There has to be some sort of connective tissue between each.”

In Deacon King Kong, whose central Causeway Housing Project is modeled on the public housing in which the New York City-born McBride was raised, the characters are further bonded by a shared sense of poverty and displacement, which is part of what drew the author to bring them to life on the page. “These are the people we only see from behind the wheel of a tightly locked car,” said McBride, who will read at King Arts Complex on Thursday, March 5. “What happens in this country is we’ve just isolated the poor to these particular areas and have built communities that don’t invite a lot of outward movement. It’s not good, but people still have a way of coming back and being happy. … We’re all pretty positive creatures coming into this world, so whatever negativity we get, it’s often because it’s imposed upon us.”

We're positive we'll continue to exist if you sign up for our daily newsletter

McBride traced this hopeful idea to his upbringing, where optimism reigned even living amid challenging circumstances. “We were really poor but we were happy, where on the surface we should have been pitiful,” he said. “We were a mixed-race family. My mother was white, father black. Then my father died. We didn’t have money. But the happiness that was existent in my house, it was something that came in part from my mother, and that’s something I’ve always sought in my life and work because it makes me feel better.”

Writing accolades tend to feel hollow, in comparison. While McBride appreciates that his books receive almost universally positive reviews, he never reads his own press, and even winning a National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird in 2013 was something he quickly set aside and forgot. “You’re not going to find me at a restaurant in New York chatting about my latest writing deeds. Why would I do that?” McBride said. “I had dinner with this famous writer recently, and the guy was so boring. All he did was talk about himself. I was like, ‘Geez, man. How can he write? If he’s just thinking about himself all day, he’s no good.’”

This outward focus exhibits itself in the many lively characters populating Deacon King Kong, nearly all of whom transcend stereotype or expectation, with most so well drawn that it’s wholly possible to imagine them existing in lives beyond the page. This is particularly true of creations such as Tommy “The Elephant” Elefante, Hot Sausage and Lightbulb — names as colorful as McBride’s writing, which effortlessly straddles humor and agony, and often moves with a musical grace reflective of his side hustle as a jazz saxophonist. At times, McBride said, the process of writing can mirror musical creation, where words arrive effortlessly, as if conjured magically from the ether rather than wrestled brutally to the mat.

As an example, the author pointed to an extended passage about ants in Deacon King Kong, which gradually opened up into something unexpected as he wrote.

And there [the ants] stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the life of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich—West Side StoryPorgy & BessPurlie Victorious—and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.

“That passage didn’t even work out the way I wanted to, but it just kept going. With these things, one thing shows itself and then it all kind of moves,” McBride said, comparing the sensation with a basketball player operating “in the zone,” where the hoop feels three times the size of the ball. “But most of the time you’re just grinding it out, and once you’ve cut turf, then maybe you can start to see the path a little bit.”

King Arts Complex

7 p.m. Thursday, March 5

867 Mt. Vernon Ave., King-Lincoln


An Evening with James McBride