Deacon King Kong

by

James McBride

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Deacon King Kong: Chapter 1: Jesus’s Cheese Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In September of 1969, an old deacon nicknamed Sportcoat shoots 19-year-old Deems Clemens, an infamously “ruthless” drug dealer, in the Causeway Housing Projects of Brooklyn. Sportcoat is an unlikely killer—he’s thin, sickly, and a longtime drinker; people thought he was a peaceful man.
Deacon King Kong opens in medias res (in the middle of the action) and then takes the reader back in time to explain what led up to Deems’s shooting. The novel is set in the late 1960s; with the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X only a few years earlier, the end of the decade was a somber time for Black people in the United States. To make matters worse, the late 1960s saw the rise of heroin in impoverished urban areas such as Brooklyn.
Themes
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
Race and Power Theme Icon
After the shooting, residents of the projects gather outside to exchange theories about why Sportcoat shot Deems. Sister T. J. Billings, whom people call “Bum-Bum,” insists that Sportcoat “is under an evil spell.” Sportcoat’s best friend, a Cause Houses janitor named Hot Sausage, suggests that Sportcoat shot Deems to settle a disagreement between the Cause Houses baseball team and their rival, the Watch Houses. Still, nobody really knows why Sportcoat did it—not even Sportcoat himself.
Throughout the novel, the residents of the Cause Houses act similarly to a chorus in Greek tragedy; that is, they provide commentary on major events, often while providing conflicting information. Many residents of the Cause have nicknames, usually based on some aspect of their personality or appearance. For instance, Sportcoat’s nickname comes from his attire.
Themes
Community and Religion Theme Icon
The night before the shooting, Sportcoat dreamed about his late wife, Hettie. Sportcoat loves to tell the story of Hettie’s disappearance, which happened during a snowstorm in 1967. As Sportcoat remembers it, after waking up in the middle of the night to a light floating around the room, Hettie goes out into the snowstorm. Hettie tells Sportcoat that the light belongs to God and that she has to leave to get some moonflowers from the harbor. Sportcoat lets his wife leave and doesn’t question her.
Hettie’s disappearance is odd and mysterious; clearly, there are important details missing in Sportcoat’s story. As the story progresses, some of these details will be gradually filled in. Additionally, this passage mentions flowers, which function as a symbol of the persistence of love in times of great hardship. 
Themes
Love, Hope, and Redemption Theme Icon
Quotes
The next morning, Sportcoat looks for Hettie. He follows her footprints to the water, but they end there. Then, Sportcoat looks up and sees a raven circling overhead; he watches the bird until it vanishes, and then he returns home. Later that day, when Hettie doesn’t show up for church at Five Ends Baptist Church, people grow concerned.
The fact that Hettie’s footprints end at the water suggest that she went into the water but didn’t come back out. However, why this would be is still unclear. Additionally, the raven Sportcoat sees signals something ominous happened.
Themes
Community and Religion Theme Icon
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Two days later, Tommy Elefante’s crew finds Hettie’s body floating in the harbor. Elefante, or “The Elephant,” is a smuggler and a tough customer whom most people try to avoid, even drug dealers like Deems. However, Elefante promises Sportcoat that he and his men had nothing to do with Hettie’s death.
Elefante will eventually become a major player in the novel, though he is only mentioned here as an aside. Assuming Elefante can be taken at his word—and it seems that Sportcoat thinks he can be—Hettie’s death remains a mystery.
Themes
Community and Religion Theme Icon
Hettie’s funeral is a chaotic affair. No one knows where to put the flowers—this was Hettie’s job. Then Pastor Gee makes a joke at Hettie’s expense and arguments break out among two of the singers in the choir. Nonetheless, Sportcoat is relatively cheerful and enjoys the ceremony. He is in a good mood, having spent the previous night drinking with his second-best friend, Rufus Harley, who makes a strong blend of moonshine known as “King Kong.” Also in attendance is Sportcoat’s son, Pudgy Fingers, who is “twenty-six, blind, and said to be half a loaf short in the mind.”
This passage gives a sense of Sportcoat’s values. Despite the chaos of Hettie’s funeral—or perhaps because of it—Sportcoat find it to be a satisfactory affair. Later he will brag about it as a great success. This scene also establishes community as an important theme in the novel.
Themes
Community and Religion Theme Icon
That night, Sportcoat dreams of Hettie and tells her about how great her funeral service was. However, he also has questions for Hettie. In particular, he wants to know where she stashed the Christmas Club money for the church. Hettie acted as the treasurer for the church and the Christmas Club money is the fund the church uses to buy Christmas presents for the children. Now that Hettie is gone, everyone wants to know what’s happened to their money—but Sportcoat doesn’t have any answers. Sportcoat spends the entire next day arguing with Hettie out loud, but he doesn’t find out what’s happened to the Christmas funds.
Because Sportcoat cares about his community, and he knows how much the Christmas Club money means to them, he is desperate to get it back. He seems to care about it even more than he cares about the circumstances surrounding Hettie’s death.
Themes
Community and Religion Theme Icon
During their argument, Hettie insults Sportcoat by calling him “the cheese thief.” She is referencing a shipment of cheese that mysteriously arrives in the Cause on the first Saturday of every month. No one knows where the cheese comes from, but it is one of the few boons of living in the Cause. Not only is the cheese free, but it is also of high quality, and the residents of the Cause line up every Saturday to get their hands on some. Hot Sausage is in charge of handing it out and he always makes sure to set some aside for Sportcoat, so he doesn’t have to wait in line. Sportcoat is offended by the notion that this makes him a thief, as Hettie suggests, especially since she benefitted from it as well.
The sudden appearance of the cheese is another one of the mysteries that slowly unravels over the course of the novel. The fact that the residents of the Cause value the cheese so highly says a lot about the conditions they are living in. To them, the cheese is a delicacy. This is why Sportcoat is so insulted when Hettie calls him a thief. Stealing the cheese would be akin to stealing the Christmas fund—both actions would be a slap in the face to the Cause community.
Themes
Community and Religion Theme Icon
From this day on, Sportcoat regularly talks and argues with Hettie as though she is there with him. Meanwhile, the other members of the projects simply ignore him. They think he is a little crazy, but no more so than anyone else. However, when Sportcoat shoots Deems, their perception changes. They realize Sportcoat may be crazier than they thought, as his actions defy all reason. Additionally, they know that Sportcoat ostensibly signed his own death warrant by killing Deems who is a feared figure in the community.
This chapter has a circular structure. It starts with Deems’s shooting, goes back in the past, and then circles back around to its opening paragraph. For most of the novel, Sportcoat’s soundness of mind will remain up for debate, and the question of why he shot Deems will continue to be an important one.
Themes
Substance Abuse Theme Icon