In the whisper of borrowed time that was early March 2020, I went to a reading at the Philadelphia Public Library. Clearly it was fate; my favorite living author, James McBride, appeared clutching his masterful novel like a visiting angel. “May God hold you in the palm of His hand”, say the members of Five Ends Baptist, the little ‘nothing’ church at the novel’s moral center. They are saying it to me. But again and again I don’t hear.
I didn’t purchase the book until weeks later when my lockdown depression was loosening and I could read again. I should say listen because audio books are my new discovery and it’s through Dominic Hoffman’s reading that I live. Deacon King Kong’s been on such heavy rotation for months that I’m on the verge of committing passages to memory. I paused today to consider why this particular book has kept me through the violence and psychosis of America during COVID. I’ve done lots of reading but this has been the one to keep me.
It’s 1969. Heroin has arrived in Red Hook. South Brooklyn is still a heterogeneous mix of Italians, blacks, and Latinos who live side by side. Racial tensions simmer but never boil over into violence. The thematic content deals with fate, and resilience in the face of bitter disappointment. McBride shows us life on the socioeconomic margins; his characters find deep, cross-cultural connections based on shared experiences of pain. They fight against the brokenness born of failed marriages, parental neglect and institutions not “concerned with our health” (the mafia or a criminally dysfunctional housing authority, depending on the character’s ethnic origins). And we witness rebirth following millions of small deaths, none of which claim ultimate victory.
How apropos for a time that’s forced us all to the margins!
McBride’s fully drawn human beings shoulder burdens handed down like a penance to the innocent. Generational trauma is mentioned all throughout the novel but equally central are surrogates (church, “chosen family”) that have life saving power.
Our protagonists are good guys who live principled lives in spite of institutional disregard. Potts, an Irish policeman has been demoted for trying to be a “super cop” during a time of flagrant police corruption in New York City. Our hero, the elderly drunkard Deacon “Sportcoat” is hunted by those same cops for firing a protest shot (literally) against heroin’s looming threat of annihilation.
The narrative is full of dizzying digressions that are not digressions at all. Inside the tangential flights, McBride’s message finds its purest expression:
“…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 Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie 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”.
Tremendous compassion for human weakness does not preclude the searing indictments of a New York City collapsing under the weight of its own greed. But the bigger picture emphasizes abundance, excessive and ever present. The treasure we seek, McBride suggests, hides in the invisible and ordinary places.
“If all you can remember are the useless things, maybe those aren’t really the useless things” thinks 19 year old drug dealer Deems, preoccupied during recovery from a gunshot wound to his ear, by the memory of giant ants that march through the projects every year.
Those big red ants, carried back inadvertently by a resident returning from a trip to his native Columbia, defy death administered in countless, imaginative ways by a young Deems and friends. They elude study by graduate students sent out from the City College of New York and NYU, institutions “desperately jockeying for public respectability” adds McBride, beginning another digression that’s NOT A DIGRESSION.
With a drug war looming, the 19 year old’s associates and childhood co-conspirators await instructions from their leader, the most “ruthless drug dealer the Cause Houses had ever seen”.
“Watch for the ants” he tells his crew.
Again, he’s talking to me. And this message comes through loud and clear so I look for the important things masquerading as ordinary.
I urge you to read or listen now, before life resumes its normal routines. McBride’s masterpiece is big enough to occupy all the empty space we feel most acutely from the margins.
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