Deacon King Kong


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Last month we read "American Dirt" which had a lot of controversy over a non-Hispanic, non-emigrant writing a book about Hispanic emigrants.  I found nothing controversial about it.  I thought it was a well-researched, unbiased novel.  Maybe it is because the news media has not been focused on immigration in several months.  The only news lately, other than COVID, seems to be about riots stemming from race issues.

So here we have a book that openly comments on race issues, even if they were issues decades ago between the ethnic groups in New York City (Italians, Jews, Blacks, Whites), and it has my thoughts racing.  I don't set out to offend anyone, I do not claim to be an expert on anything, but I do have more experience than a lot of people in that I have lived and worked among other cultures and ethnicities and even won an award for being a champion of diversity.

When I initially read the description of this novel about a shooting in the housing projects, the story did not interest me.  But right from the beginning the characters are a kind of charming that made me want to get to know them.  I would love to go on a picnic with any of James McBride's characters as much as I would with Fredrik Backman's or Fannie Flagg's. There is also one character (Earl) who becomes like the crooks in a Home Alone movie with a variety of random injuries.

The story is set in 1969, as noted on the book jacket, and in the first sentence of the novel.  It didn't occur to me until page 297 when Potts told Elephant he'd met his dad in 1948 and I started to think about the timeline.  I didn't even notice the absence of cell phones.  There were references to Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers but they registered as old but not impossible.  I was enjoying being with these characters so much that I felt a little sad when I realized they were in a time past and I couldn't actually go hang out in their neighborhood.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 3

Religion:  5

Gruesome: 2

Suspense: 2

Morality:  4

Traditional:  2

Sex - Preacher was "trying to convert a female...with boobs the size of Milwaukee." (Pg. 5)  Reference to Sis. Bibb's off-page wild night with Hot Sausage. (Pg. 6)  Overtones put upon the Heimlich maneuver. (Pg. 31)  Someone needed money to get over the hump but the only hump they were interested in was sex. (Pg. 66)  "Coitus" is explained as "doing the nature thing". (Pg. 205)  A female implies that she will perform oral sex on a male. (Pg. 249) Bunch talks about using female's "talents".  A girl remembers men paying a quarter to squeeze her mom's breasts and herself being used by dealers. (Pgs. 308 - 309)  Bunch contemplates noises made during sex. (Pg. 311)  A character watched for a sign from his clandestine lover that they could hook up after a funeral. (Pg. 360)

Religion - religion plays a big part of this story.  Many characters attend the same Baptist church, there are several references to past Sunday school classes, attempts to quote the Bible, and in the beginning of the novel Sportcoat spends some time thinking about his upcoming sermon.  Bunch tells Earl their moms were both church people and that church is great at building up community.  Deems thinks Sportcoat doesn't need Jesus because he's happy. Deems' mom had a motto "Food. Shelter. Jesus" and thought Deems was ungrateful for having a place to live. (Pg. 80)   "It's the God fearing places that's the worst.  God is the last thing in some of these churches out here.  Seems like they do more fighting than praying in the church today..." (Pg. 108) Sausage reasons that if Jesus had many names it is okay for him to have multiple names also. (Pg. 126) Bum Bum declares that Jesus doesn't need any voodoo and that Soup was released from jail through the power of prayer. (Pg. 133) Brief explanation of Catholic church relics. (Pg. 184)  Macy said the church doesn't like gay people. (Pg. 186) "It's better to pray for the saving of an enemy's soul than their ruination." and quote of Hebrews 12:14. (Pg. 207) A Christian woman speaks of a young man who was raised in church but converted to Muslim in jail - "as long as he's got God in his life some kind of way." (Pg. 213)  Sportcoat tells Elephant everyone is a brother or sister in Christ and invites him and his mother to church. (Pg. 231) A character who had been religious in their youth but had turned to a life of crime, called out to God when they were drowning. (Pg. 252)  When a grown man heard his former Sunday school teacher curse for the first time he said it "felt sacrilegious". (Pg. 254) When Sis. Gee was feeling down on life and burdened by the struggle for existence she turned it around by recognizing that she was a child of God. (Pg. 267) "Prayer and insurance.  The only two things a good Catholic ever needs." (Pg. 297)  " 'So he drinks, and grows plants and goes to church,' Potts said, 'So far he sounds Catholic'." (Pg. 302)  When Sis. Paul finished talking, Elephant "felt as if he'd been blessed and had communion, his sins washed clean by confession." (Pg. 346)

Gruesome - details of the sickness that Dominic brought back from Haiti (Pg. 3)  Reference to a male's anatomy being cut off. (Pg. 44)  "Lop off one of his nuts if you have to." (Pg. 70)  List of things addicts would do for more heroin. (Pg. 309) An old man attempts to strangle a hospital patient. (Pg. 319)

Suspense - Ch. 5 when the Governor begins to inquire about the item Guido was holding for him.  It is mildly interesting to wonder what it is and where it might be hidden.  Elephant agreed to a deal with Guido and as part of that deal he could not tell Melissa about the arrangement.  (Pg. 182)  This made me very curious since the reader is as much in the dark about the terms of the deal as Melissa is.  There are a couple of mystery plots that run through the story, like where is the Christmas Club money.  It makes it interesting but not edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Morality - "Reverend Gee, inspired by the sight of the cousins' lovely breasts swelling beneath their robes..." (Pg. 8)  There is a mention of a step-mom "degrading" a boy. (Pg. 40)  The meaning is implied and confirmed later.  Sportcoat steals a bottle of liquor from his employer. (Pg. 92)  Rufus implies that pastors are not trustworthy with money. (Pg. 95)  Rufus enjoys speculating that Sis. Paul (the pastor's wife) and Guido Elefante might have had an affair. (Pg. 97)  Potts told others to take their hats off in church. (Pg. 102)  
When Sis. Gee is upset because she might have lied to the police, Sausage reassures her that you can't lie about what you don't know." (Pg. 126)  Guido told Macy how upset their mother would be to know he had stolen church relics. (Pg. 186)   Deems changed his drug-dealing strategy and wouldn't sell to elderly kids, church people, or people who commit domestic abuse. (Pg. 200)  Hettie explained to Sportcoat that the reason he liked Deems so much is because Sportcoat's stepmother did "improper things" to him when he was young and Deems also had a hard childhood. (Pg. 286)

Traditional - The Governor explained that his brother was a "ponce" which he explained as "Light as a feather.  They'd call him a sissy today... . He had a taste for the finer things in life." (Pg. 184)  The Governor further explained that his father couldn't stand Macy and complained that Macy liked boys, (Pg. 185) to which the Elephant tried to share a rumor about a priest who liked boys but Guido did not listen.  The Governor said Macy talked him out of killing the priest who was "a sick man who likes children" which was different from people like his brother who was "sweet on men". (Pg. 185)  There are two suicides in the novel, both are peaceful and told after the fact.

Anti-Police Sentiment

Elefante sees the cops as a hindrance to the economy, "his economy anyway". (Ch. 5) The counterpoint is that Elefante's economy deals with stolen goods or illegal imports.  A few pages later he says, "The only Irish my father talked to were cops.  And they were like a fungus."  There is a reference to throwing a bucket of water on police. (Pg. 109)

For decades there has been an idea that it is okay for a black person to use the "n" word but if anyone else says it it is offensive. If that is your belief than you might skip page 151.  If you are moderately offended you should skip pages 175 and 182 when an Italian also adds "spics".  If you are easily offended, skip the following pages: 39, 44, 65, 66, 69, 164, 167, 168, 169 and 313 (twice) when the "n" word is said within the black race.  

This book tries to play both sides of the fence - as life does.  It's part Malcom X and part MLK.  Bunch explains that Jews hate blacks and whiteys hate jews (Pg. 63) while Sister Gee declares "You can't hate a thing for being what it is.  Dirt makes me who I am.  Whenever I try to rid the world of it, I'm making things a little better for somebody. Same with you." (to Potts, Pg. 105)  Miss Four Pie "didn't care about the coloreds.  She saw them just as people." (Pg. 182)

McBride's writing style is easy to follow.  He mixes in quite a few colloquialisms but they are easy to understand in context.  I did have to look up one on urbandictionary.com.  I was a little surprised that there were a few lines of Spanish mixed in that were not translated and did not have context clues.  They weren't critical to the story but it still seemed weird. (Pg. 129) I also felt like Chapter 11 was a little heavy on business and I had to reread it a couple times to make sure I followed the plot.  The dialect creeps in.  At first the novel is all proper English.  Then some ebonics is used in dialogue.  By page 243 the narrator has us reading sentences like, "He couldn't get it out his head" (missing "of").  Throughout the novel characters speak with curse words as a lot of people do throughout their daily life.  On page 318 the language between two old friends is notably rough and vulgar.  

Discussion Questions

In the beginning of the novel, several residents of the Cause House offer their opinion on why Sportcoat shot Deems.  These reasons include, rheumatic fever (Sis. Gee), mojo - an evil spell (Sis. T. J. Billings), blackmailed by a gangster like her ex-husband (Miss Izi), because of a baseball game two years ago (Hot Sausage), and because he was determined to do one great thing (Dominic the Haitian Sensation).  (Pgs. 2 - 3)  It is said that not even the deacon knew why.  Towards the end of the novel he tries to express his reason.  What was your understanding of why Sportcoat shot Deems?

Throughout the book characters are described by their skin-tone: "brown-skinned man" (Pg. 1), "brown as a chocolate candy" (Pg. 6), "his etched chocolate features" (Pg. 8), "chocolate-skinned man" (Pg. 92), "milky brown skin" (Pgs. 105 & 309), "chocolate woman". (Pg. 107).  This same type of description is not applied to the Italians, Irish or Latinos in the book.  Other African-American authors often employ the same methods, such as Laila Ibrahim in "Yellow Crocus".  While a description of skin tone does occur occasionally with other authors, it is not so frequent.  In "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins I do not recall her making any distinction between the skin tones of the characters from different Latin American countries, not even those who were frequently outside or frequently inside - shading of skin was not mentioned.  What is the cultural significance of describing characters by their skin tone?  Is this an indication that African-Americans in general are more focused on skin tone than other races or ethnicities?  What might happen if they focused less attention on skin color and more on the humanity of everyone?

For a century Americans have been striving for equality among the various races.  Yes, there were times when the white person said to a black person, you can't sit here or you can't drink there.  The white people don't say that anymore.  But now the black person says to the white person, you can't say nigger, only black people can say nigger.  McBride says of one character, "...he worked like a slave." (Pg. 19)  If a white author had written that there would likely by an outcry.  If there is truly to be equality, then shouldn't words  be available to everybody or nobody and not limited to who can use them?

With several instances of anti-police sentiments (see above), does this book perpetuate today's lack of respect for police?

McBride, through the narrator, commentates that "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..." (Pg. 76)  If we can't trust theater for a true picture of blacks and Latinos, can we trust literature?  Can we trust McBride?  How can we get a fair, unbiased, impartial representation of black life in America?

At the end of Chapter 7 Deems thinks he is a man with a plan and he needs to make a big play. (Pg. 90)
Did he?

It seems like whenever Pudgy Fingers enters the page he is defined as Sportcoat's son when other characters come and go and don't get the same reconnection.  Why does Pudgy get special treatment by McBride? (ex. beginning Ch. 9)

There are two characters that recognize within themselves feelings for the other, even though both are married and in positions in which they should behave morally.  What did you think was going to happen between these two characters?  What did you hope was going to happen? (Ch. 9)  Were you satisfied with how their story line wrapped up?

Sister Gee said residents, "don't know whether to thank him or throw a bucket of water on him" regarding the undercover police man who saved someone's life. (Pg. 109)  McBride was quite possibly working on this book when New York City residents were making a habit of dumping buckets on police officers in the street.  If President Trump had made a tweet with that same wording he'd be accused of inciting violence!  What is McBride trying to accomplish?  She also tells Potts "Y'all don't watch out for us.  Y'all watch over us.  I don't see y'all out there standing over the white folks." (Pg. 212)  How important is the distinction between watching out and watching over?  How easy is it to confuse or misconstrue the two ideas?

Izi is a minor character introduced early in the book.  She constantly bad mouths her ex.  Not until Chapter 10 do we meet the ex.  Joaquin is presented in a likable manner before we are told that he is the ex.  What affect did this have on your feelings towards these two characters?

McBride often expresses contrasting sentiments such as, "...preachers packed pistols, slung cotton...from their pulpits while holding a bale of cotton with one hand and fingering a female choir member with the other" and then in the same paragraph "...music came from God.  Anything from God was always a good thing." (Pg. 120)  Why do you think McBride provides these conflicting viewpoints - to appeal to a wider audience or to reflect the diversity of our world?

When Joe was telling Elefante what a great kid Deems was, Elefante said, "If he's so great, why not give him one of those Negro scholarships?" (Pg. 151)  If these scholarships and preferential admission to colleges have been around for decades, why are these programs not more utilized or more successful?  Should they continue?  Is there a downside to the programs intended to provide equality.  Do they harm anyone?
Soup says alcohol "is the white man's way of keeping the black man down." (Pg. 135) Reread the third to last paragraph of Chapter 11.  What is McBride trying to tell us?  How does it make you feel towards Elephant?  Later, at the bottom of page 181, the thoughts between Elephant and Melissa seem to echo the same idea.  Is McBride blaming the plight of minorities on development by jews and whites? For how long must the other races be to blame for the down-trodden blacks?  Many have taken responsibility for themselves and sought and attained a better life.  Won't there always be disparity between classes, even within a race?  Guido even told his son to watch out for other Italians from different parts of the country. (Pg. 148)  Within any ethnic group or race there are the haves and the have-nots.  Some of it is driven by opportunity, some of it is driven by choices.  Statistics show that some races have more poverty than others - how much of it is oppression and how much is systemic within their culture and failure to take the opportunities afforded to them and thus break the cycle of poverty?

Sausage and Sportcoat talk about how to break curses, for example, soaking  a churchyard snail for seven days in vinegar.  What cultural superstitions did your family pass down?  In Chapter 15 Dominic and Bum-Bum discuss rituals such as black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, carrying a raw potato in the left pocket for rheumatism or "holding a copper coin under your tongue during coitus!" What are your family rituals?

Do you agree with the maxims:
  • "A man who cannot keep his word is worthless." (Pg. 55) 
  •  "Twenty years a-growing, twenty years in blossom, twenty years a-stooping, twenty years declining."
    (Pg. 176)
  • "A man who does not trust cannot be trusted." (Ch. 13)
When Potts and Sis. Gee were discussing weeds she said their purpose is to keep growing and that "Everything under God's sun got a purpose in this world.  Everything wants to live.  Everything deserves life, really." (Pg. 210)  She says the weeds don't hurt the church and even though they are ugly to her they are beautiful to God. (Pg. 211)  She rationalized that she still cuts them because, like most people, she just goes through the motions.  Should we cut weeds?  Should we go through the motions?

Lightbulb told Bunch that Deems, "wants to be a cop now.  Before he became a punk and let Sportcoat shoot him, he would sell to everybody.  Now he won't sell to grandmothers.  He won't sell to little kids.  He won't sell to nobody from the church. ... He wants to be telling folks what they should be doing.  That's why Sportcoat shot him, I think, because he got pussified, talking about going back to baseball and all this, ordering folks around, telling folks what to do instead of making that money."  (Pg. 200)  Lightbulb seems a bit confused on the timeline stating that before he got shot Deems would sell to anyone but also stating that his change in strategy to not sell to certain people was the reason he got shot.  Did you believe Deems was interested in changing his life?  Was Lightbulb a credible witness to attest to Deems intentions?

Sis. Gee reports that in 1969 parents send their children out to buy drugs for them and wonders how society got that way.  (Pg. 215) Do you have an answer for Sis. Gee?  Has society gotten better, worse, or stayed the same?

Sis. Gee told Potts, "Nothing in this world is dangerous unless white folks says it is." (Pg. 219) Does this provide insight that black people feel that they are treated like babies?  Did you find other insights in the book?

Throughout the story both Sportcoat and Elephant are looking for something "in God's hands".  Eventually we learn the location.  Before it is clearly revealed to us, the location is mentioned probably ten times as a part of life in the neighborhood.  When did you figure out the location?

Did you think Earl's clumsiness was a ploy to set up Deems? (Ch. 17)

We are warned several times that a contract killer was coming in from out of town.  The characters were also warned.  Yet the killer slipped in among them without detection.  Did you guess who it was before they were revealed?  Were you surprised by what happened on the dock (in the summary at the beginning of Ch. 18)?  Were you fooled by the word "rumor"?  Would you have preferred these characters remain on the page?  How did it change the story for you?  When Haroldeen said the two old guys came outta nowhere, does that imply she (and Bunch) was really after Deems, not Sportcoat?  Who was the true target and why?

When Potts told Sis. Gee what happened at the dock, and she realized there might be confusion about who was actually in the hospital, she had a glimmer of hope - why?  Either way one was dead.  Was their a reason she preferred Sausage to live?  Or was she hoping that one escaped? (Pg. 263)

When Sportcoat and Hettie recalled his dad telling him to "saw on" she thought that was a horrible way to talk to a child.  (Pg. 282)  What was wrong with it?

Hettie told Sportcoat, regarding New York City, "life's worse here than back home.  The white folks here just color it different.  They don't mind you sitting next to 'em on the subway, or riding the bus in the front seat, but if you asks for the same pay, or wants to live next door, or get so beat down you don't wanna stand up and sing about how great America is, they'll bust down on you so hard pus'll come out your ears." (Pg. 286)  Is this still true today?  Hettie also complained about "The Star-Spangled Banner" decades before Colin Kaepernick would take a knee.  Do you agree that the third stanza is racist?  What could be done to put this issue to rest?  As a U.S. citizen, what will you do to help resolve this issue?

Hettie reveals herself to Sportcoat as a woman with a hateful heart who relied on Jesus to keep from killing anyone and said she was so full of evil at the end of her life she wanted to kill both of them.  (Pg. 287)  Why was it important that we see this side of Hettie, who, until then, had been portrayed as a church-going, kind, loving and supportive woman?

Sportcoat visited Deems the last time he was in the hospital.  (Pg. 319)  He took some unorthodox methods to make a point to Deems that he was not following the path that had been chosen for him.  Eventually he got the message across.  Does the end justify the means?  What could he have done instead?

One of the mysteries that runs through the story is the origin of the cheese.  It is mostly explained.  Did you figure out who the benefactor was before it was revealed?  Was the explanation complete?  What about the final 5,740 lbs. of cheese (Pg. 358) - where did that come from if the original benefactor was already deceased?

Sister Paul's stories reminded Elephant of the games played as a kid, like stick ball.  What games did you play?

Sportcoat, in the time frame of this novel, tells Hettie, "What is a woman but her labor and her children?" (Pg. 369)  How would you reply to Sportcoat?  Would your answer have been different fifty years ago?

The last chapter is more like an epilogue.  Were you satisfied with the resolution of the story lines?  Were there any that left you hanging?

Theme Ideas

Serve crab like Deacon and Hettie ate before she died. (Pg. 3)

Serve Italian cheese with a sign "Courtesy of the NYC Housing Authority". (Pg. 10)

Serve fortune cookies like at the end of Chapter 1.

Serve root beer (with or without gin) like Sportcoat drank at Itkins. (Pg. 38)

Serve chicken, coffee and cake like Bunch said they should take to the rioters. (Pg. 65)

Serve chicken and sweet potato pies like the church people took Elefante every Christmas after he pulled Hettie out of the water. (Pg. 144)

Serve bagels like the Governor's bagel shop. (Ch. 13)

Serve chicken wings and barbecue sauce like Bunch served Lightbulb. (Ch. 14)

Serve "mayi moulen ak sos pwa, poul an sos" (cornmeal with beans and stewed chicken) (Pg. 207)

Serve blueberry pie in honor of Miss Four Pie. (Ch. 16)

Serve cookies shaped like the Venus of Willendorf.

Serve Mars bars in honor of Mel the security guard at Sis. Paul's home. 

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