Some novels about city life are poems of alienation, interior portraits of the existentially isolate, but James McBride’s vision of New York is one of overwhelming human profusion. His new novel, “Deacon King Kong” (Riverhead), set in what appears to be a fictionalized version of the Brooklyn housing project where McBride grew up, is crowded with characters whose backstories are crowded with more characters, all of their fates connected, in ways they know about and in ways they don’t. It’s a world where isolation seems like vanity; where one’s intimate business is usually, somehow, everyone else’s business, too; where even the attempted murder that begins the novel takes place in front of sixteen witnesses, many of whom know both shooter and victim personally.
“Deacon King Kong” is a nickname on top of a nickname: everyone in the Cause Houses knows the title character as Sportcoat. He is indeed a deacon, serving at the local Five Ends Baptist Church (though one of the novel’s running jokes is that no one quite knows what a deacon’s duties are, or how a man gets to be one), and he used to be the coach of the Cause’s youth baseball team. Now he spends his days doing the occasional odd job and, primarily, drinking. King Kong is the name of the home brew he favors. It is September, 1969, during what will prove a miraculous season for baseball fans in the city, and Sportcoat, seventy-one years of age, is equally in need of divine intervention, as he reels from the death of his wife.
Then one day, almost as if possessed, Sportcoat goes to the Cause Houses plaza, walks up to a teen-ager named Deems Clemens, a onetime star of Sportcoat’s youth baseball team who now sells heroin, and shoots him. Worse luck for Sportcoat, he succeeds only in taking off part of Deems’s ear, leaving the young man in enraging pain, and poised to exact revenge. It makes no sense to anyone who knows Sportcoat that the harmless old man would do such a thing. Afterward, Sportcoat has no memory of the shooting and expresses a kind of condescending skepticism toward those who try to convince him that he was responsible. The first two chapters both end by pronouncing Sportcoat “a dead man”; you could say that the novel is concerned not only with solving the mystery of his violent act but with his prospects for resurrection.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a mobster known as the Elephant, a holdover from back when the neighborhood was mostly Italian, gets a visit from a man known as the Governor, who purports to be an old friend of the Elephant’s late father. He’s come to collect something that the Elephant’s father was holding for him: a tiny, priceless bit of wartime plunder from Europe known as the Venus of Willendorf. No one has a clue where it is, apart from a cryptic old letter from Elephant père assuring the Governor that his treasure was safely “in the palm of God’s hand.”
These threads converge. Readers who understand that they are in a realm where everything makes sense, where nothing is mentioned at random—a plot, in other words—will figure out the Venus’ whereabouts well ahead of the characters. That’s O.K.; the satisfaction comes from seeing those characters, armed with less evidence than the reader possesses but guided by faith, close in on their goals, and from watching Sportcoat—whom a white character dismisses as the kind of drunk “who dies at twenty and is buried at eighty”—somehow get saved, over and over again.
The sheer volume of invention in “Deacon King Kong”—on the level of both character (the first chapter alone introduces twenty individuals by name) and language—commands awe. Reading it is like watching a movie in which one’s occasional impulse to ask questions is pleasantly swamped by the need to keep up with the pace of events. So comprehensive is the novel’s vision of the Cause Houses that Chapter 7 is narrated in part from the perspective of a colony of ants. In order to better understand these ants and how they came to the Cause, we flash back to the year 1951; by the time we return to 1969, the story of the ants has somehow roped in the New York Knicks, “that great Polish-Lithuanian General Andrew Thaddeus Bonaventure Kosciuszko,” and a stray German shepherd named Donald whose fur turned orange after it fell into the Gowanus Canal.
And the sentences! The prose radiates a kind of chain-reaction energy. After some chapters, you feel empathetically exhausted, in the way you might feel drained by watching an overtime football game. The experience of traversing a simple flashback paragraph is like trying to leap from stone to stone across a river, except occasionally one of them turns out to be not a stone after all but a lily pad, or a shadow, and into the river you go. Here’s a description of Sportcoat’s youth: