Even before he shot Deems, it was surprising to the Causeway community that Sportcoat was still alive. The residents of the Cause often spotted him stumbling drunk through the streets at night and spending time in seedy areas. Additionally, throughout his life, Sportcoat’s been prone to taking ill and hurting himself. Even the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church, where Sportcoat is a deacon, are surprised he is still alive.
Drugs and alcohol play an important part in the novel, as this early description of Sportcoat’s addiction illustrates. In addition, despite his addiction, Sportcoat is still welcome—and even allowed to be a deacon—at the Five Ends Church. The church is a beacon of light for the Five Ends community—it offers safety, camaraderie, and opportunities for redemption.
Among other health issues, Sportcoat’s had three stokes, he’s contracted gout and rheumatoid arthritis, and he’s developed a number of cysts and hernias. Additionally, as a child, he grew way too many teeth and had to have them extracted. He also accidentally cut off a finger, a toe, and sliced his aorta. As a young man, Sportcoat injured himself so much that he became a familiar face to the medical students at his local university in South Carolina. Despite his medical history, Sportcoat is still alive and drinks constantly.
Sportcoat is a medical miracle to the point of absurdity. He’s come down with every illness and hurt himself in every possible way, and yet he’s still managed to live to old age and perform manual labor. However, the residents of the Cause know about his background and are still worried about Deems. This speaks to the level of fear Deems manages to inspire within the community.
As a young boy, Sportcoat lost his mother. His father raised him, and his stepmother treated him poorly. As a young man, he decides to follow Hettie, his high school sweetheart, to New York; the two of them eventually get married. Hettie moved to New York from South Carolina several years before Sportcoat did to work as a maid for a white family. After joining Hettie in New York, Sportcoat becomes the local handyman and gardener. Sportcoat is excellent at both of his jobs—there is no appliance he cannot fix and no plant he cannot grow.
Sportcoat’s upbringing is only lightly detailed here—more details will emerge toward the end of the novel. Needless to say, Sportcoat’s early life was difficult, so much so that he left his loved ones behind to follow Hettie. This is one explanation for his alcoholism. An important quality of Sportcoat’s character is that he is a hard worker who is extremely competent, especially with plants.
Unlike Sportcoat and Hettie, Deems grew up in New York City. This upbringing made Deems tough, and although he has little formal education, he’s managed to make connections all over the city in the drug trade. At a young age, Deems managed to make himself relatively wealthy and feared all over the Cause. The residents of the Cause know that those who cross Deems often end up injured or dead. This is why they fear for Sportcoat’s safety. Although Sportcoat’s previously been able to live through anything, his luck may have finally run out after shooting Deems.
The novel never discusses Deems’s upbringing in the Cause in depth, but it’s clear that he doesn’t have a parent to look out for him. In part, Deems is a product of the city he grew up in. As a young Black man, he didn’t see opportunities to escape his dire circumstances, so he turned to the one occupation that was sure to make money: dealing drugs. Notably, drug dealers are not an uncommon sight in the Cause. Additionally, the fact that everyone fears Deems suggests that he can be especially clever and violent.