Death and Rebirth in James McBride's Deacon King Kong

Reading Time: 4 mins

At its heart, this is what Deacon King Kong is all about: the paradox of Jesus carving his victory out of the last thing we expect, not our triumphs but our defeats.

“…there is no god besides me. I kill and make alive, I wound and I heal…” (Deut. 32:39).

While doing a little post-yuletide tidying up, I came across James McBride’s most recent novel, Deacon King Kong. To my pride, I read this book when it first came out, March 2020. To my embarrassment, I had not properly put the book away until just now.

McBride is a prolific and award-winning author. His memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, has merited plenty of commendation. Chief among such praise is McBride’s ability to tell complex stories with empathy, wit, and humor. And Deacon King Kong is no different.

In fact, the book opens and closes with one of humanity’s most vexing problems: death. And McBride never shies away from the complexity of this issue, either. The truth is, there is a lot of death in Deacon King Kong. Characters and dreams alike all meet their end in the course of this saga. However, all that death is little more than the platter upon which the resurrection is served up.

The cast in this book is large, and every character is just that, a character. It is a pleasure to watch them walk around and interact in their little fictional world. The man at the center of the drama, though, is Cuffy Lambkin. Not that anyone calls him that. Most people call him Sportcoat, but some of the kids in the neighborhood call him Deacon King Kong.

This second moniker is hoisted around Cuffy’s neck for a couple of reasons. First, King Kong is the homemade liquor Sportcoat favors. Second, he is a deacon at Five Ends Baptist Church.

In a little gag that carries throughout the novel, no one is quite sure what a deacon does. By the end of the book, though, Cuffy becomes a deacon in the truest sense. As such, Sportcoat doesn’t achieve this role. Instead, it is hoisted upon him as he falls into it.

Not that any of that matters, though. After Sportcoat takes an old .38 and pulls the trigger on the neighborhood drug dealer, Deems, Sportcoat gets a new name: good as dead. This is because, while Sportcoat’s bullet may have managed to hit Deems, it did not kill him. From that point on, everyone agrees, Sportcoat is a dead man. And that death sentence is the engine that propels the rest of the book forward.

For most, a death sentence would be the end. For Sportcoat, though, it is nothing new! As a child, Sportcoat seemed earmarked for death. It is actually how he came about the nickname, Sportcoat. It was part of an elaborate home remedy to get his teeth to come in when he was nine.

That is not a typo, by the way.

Throughout his life, Sportcoat managed to come down with just about every ailment imaginable. None of them, though, could ever do Sportcoat in. That is, until his stunt with Deems. That little caper, agrees everyone, was Sportcoat’s final number.

Only, it isn’t! Not only do all the hits out on Sportcoat’s life come to nothing, but Sportcoat himself also refuses to try and save his own skin! Instead, he carries his death sentence around with him like a charm. And, impossibly, it works! Which is how it always goes, by the way.

We, like Sportcoat, carry a death sentence, too. And the thing is, it is nothing new for us, either. As children of Adam and Eve, we share their curse: death. The difference between Sportcoat and us, though, is that we spend much of our life trying to outrun, repair, or repeal our death sentence. And all we have to show for our effort is how much closer we are to the fate we have been running from.

The delicious irony at the heart of Deacon King Kong is that Sportcoat evinces another way. Instead of denying his death, Sportcoat welcomes it. As such, he is free from it! In fact, it is how he finally, at long last, finds his life. And, his vocation, too, as deacon.

In an impossible ending the book has been careening to all along, Sportcoat serves up his death sentence so that everyone around him might live. And live they do. At the final celebration of the novel, all the characters gather around a death and are served up life in all its richness.

As Christians, this sounds eucharistic. And it is. McBride is a Christian, and he doesn’t hide his belief’s influence on his writing. But it would not be accurate to say that Sportcoat is a Christ figure. He’s a little too complicated for that. Rather, Sportcoat resembles you and me in our conflicted status as sinner/saints. At its heart, this is what Deacon King Kong is all about: the paradox of Jesus carving his victory out of the last thing we expect, not our triumphs but our defeats.

As Deacon King Kong pressurizes to its conclusion, Sportcoat is brought further and further along into the death he’s carried around all his life. This death, though, turns out to be the birth pangs to something new. At that point, Sportcoat is christened with a new name. One he’s had all along.

To explain this name would be more tedious and less entertaining than encouraging you to experience it yourself within the pages of Deacon King Kong. Instead, dear reader, allow me to speak directly to you and your own life. While you may share the curse of Cuffy Lambkin, Eve, Adam, and the rest of us, too, that is not the only mark you carry. Jesus, another man marked for death, has undone the power of death by his own death. And in your baptism, you wear the mark of Jesus’ ever new blessing.

This means, like the child of God, Cuffy Lambkin, you too are marked for a life that has been wrenched out of death’s grip. And the best way to experience this victory is to stare down death’s empty threats. Which life, such as it is, offers us no shortage of. On its own, of course, this is only bad news. But, hiding in each and every one of our deaths is the resurrection Christ has won. That’s the sheer delight of life in Christ, I am told. And it is the pleasure of reading Deacon King Kong, I am happy to report.

May your death and life, in that order, serve as a hotbed for your own great adventure of faith. May it compel you, as it did Cuffy and countless other saints, into the wild ride of life turned upside-down by the power of grace.