In the Causeway Projects, an impoverished section of late-1960s Brooklyn, Sportcoat, an elderly deacon, shoots Deems Clemens, a young man and vicious drug dealer. Seemingly, the act is unprovoked, and everyone in the Causeway (or “the Cause)” thinks Sportcoat—who is also an alcoholic—may have gone crazy. They know Deems’s reputation and think it likely that Deems’s associates will likely kill Sportcoat for his actions. A young, African American detective named Jet Hardman witnesses the shooting while working undercover, disguised as a janitor. Hartman’s job is to spy on Deems in order to gather information on Joe Peck, an Italian mobster who is responsible for introducing heroin to the Cause. As such, Jet spends much of his time by a flagpole that is part of the Cause’s central plaza where Deems does the majority of his selling.
One day, while watching Deems, Jet sees Sportcoat walk up to him with a gun in his pocket. Jet is concerned but doesn’t want to blow his cover. Sportcoat begins talking to Deems about getting back into baseball. Sportcoat was Deems’s former coach and doesn’t understand why Deems quit the game when he was so talented. At first, Sportcoat amuses Deems, but he quickly gets on Deems’s nerves. When Deems tries to dismiss Sportcoat, Sportcoat pulls out his gun and aims at Deems’s head. As he does so, Jet yells a warning to Deems, who is able to move just enough so that the shot isn’t fatal—Sportcoat hits Deems in the ear. Everyone in the plaza flees the scene, fearing danger and the police. However, when Sportcoat looks down at Deems, he has a sudden change of heart and decides to spare his life. Shortly after the shooting, the police arrive, though by the time they get there, the only people that remain are Jet and Deems. Deems is then rushed to the hospital.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the police send officers to the Cause to find the shooter. Potts, senior member of the force, leads the investigation. Despite being white, he is more sensitive than most to the concerns of the predominately African American residents of the Cause. Potts questions a woman named Sister Gee about the identity of the shooter. Sister Gee is the leader of the Five Ends Church, the most important social institution in the Cause. Sister Gee likes Potts, but she cares too much about her community to tell him the truth. She thinks handing Sportcoat over to the police will only make matters worse. Meanwhile, Sportcoat himself seems to have forgotten the shooting took place. When his best friend, Hot Sausage tells Sportcoat what he’s done, he doesn’t believe him. He cannot imagine why he’d shoot Deems. Instead of worrying about the police or violent retaliation, Sportcoat spends his time doing two things: drinking and talking to his late wife, Hettie. Sportcoat drinks a special brand of moonshine known as “King Kong,” which his friend Rufus Harley makes. While drunk, Sportcoat often sees an imaginary version of Hettie who died a few years before the start of the story. Although the initial cause of her death is unclear, it eventually becomes apparent that Hettie drowned herself at the nearby docks. After Hettie’s death, Sportcoat was left to raise their son, Pudgy Fingers, who is thought to be intellectually disabled, by himself.
Usually when Sportcoat sees Hettie, the two of them argue about a missing Christmas Fund. Hettie, as a member of the Five Ends Church, was in charge of the Christmas Fund the church uses to buy gifts for the children of the community. After her death, Sportcoat was unable to find out where she stored the funds, leading to some anger in the community. This upsets Sportcoat, who doesn’t want the other residents of the Cause to think poorly of him. He cares about his community and makes a living by performing odd jobs for its residents. One such resident is Mrs. Elefante, an elderly Italian woman who lives near the Cause. Mrs. Elefante is the son of Tommy Elefante, who runs a smuggling ring out of the docks near the Cause. Although Tommy Elefante is no pushover, his criminal activities are relatively benign. The goods he smuggles into the Cause and its neighboring communities are all items that would normally be legal, such as TVs and cigarettes. He does not smuggle drugs and despises what they’ve done to the community. In fact, he repeatedly turns down an offer from Joe Peck to smuggle heroin, even though it would allow him to make a lot of money and retire.
However, early in the novel, Elefante happens upon a different money-making opportunity. A man known as “the Governor” tells Elefante about a small statue named the Venus of Willendorf that was in the possession of Elefante’s father before he died. The Governor knows this because he was an old friend of Elefante’s father—and he gave Elefante’s father the statue. Apparently, the Venus is worth millions of dollars and could make both men rich if they find it. Elefante desperately wants to find the statue because he dreams of retiring and getting away from a life of crime. He hopes to one day find a wife and settle down, but feels he is running out of time. Unfortunately, Elefante has no idea where the Venus could be. Then, one day not long after the shooting, Elefante runs into Sportcoat. Sportcoat says to Elefante, “I hope God holds you in the palm of His hand,” the motto of the Five Ends Church. This catches Elefante’s attention, because the Governor previously recited a poem to him that used the same phrase in relation to the Venus. Elefante wonders if the Five Ends Church has something to do with the Venus.
While Elefante searches for the Venus, Sportcoat goes about his normal routine, while narrowly avoiding death. A man named Bunch Moon, who works for Joe Peck, has sent a man named Earl to hurt Sportcoat for shooting Deems. However, every time Earl gets close to Sportcoat, something thwarts his efforts. Meanwhile, Sportcoat remains safe and oblivious. After Earl fails for a third time, Bunch recruits a different hitman to carry out the job. Around the time the new hitman is supposed to arrive, Sportcoat, having realized he did shoot Deems, decides to make amends with Deems. In order to secure a safe meeting with Deems, Sportcoat sends Hot Sausage to talk to him. Hot Sausage finds Deems at the Causeway docks with a girl named Phyllis who is apparently new in town. Deems gets mad when Hot Sausage interrupts his date to ask him to meet with Sportcoat. However, before their conversation can get far, Phyllis pulls out a gun and shoots Deems, one of Deems’s men, and Hot Sausage. Evidently, Phyllis is the new hitman. Hot Sausage goes down immediately, but Deems, who is hit in the arm, manages to get into the water. Sportcoat, who’s been hiding underneath the dock, drags him to safety.
Meanwhile, Potts continues his investigation. He speaks with Sister Gee, who continues to be unhelpful, though she and Potts become increasingly infatuated with each other. In the meantime, Sportcoat hides out at Rufus’s place, and Hot Sausage and Deems recover in the hospital. Sportcoat spends his time drinking and arguing with Hettie about the Christmas fund, which he still hasn’t found. Hettie also berates him for his constant drinking. In hopes that he’ll find the Christmas fund, Sportcoat decides to visit a woman named Sister Paul. Although she now lives in an old folks home, Sister Paul is one of the founding members of the Five Ends Church. Before he departs from Rufus’s place, Sportcoat also swears off drinking.
Although Sister Paul doesn’t know the location of the Christmas Fund, she does give Sportcoat other valuable information. Apparently, the Five Ends Church was built by Elefante’s father after Sister Paul helped get him out of a difficult situation. His only stipulation in paying for the church was that he wanted to hide a small object in one of its walls. Although Sportcoat doesn’t know it, that object is the Venus.
Sportcoat also goes to visit Hot Sausage and Deems in the hospital. However, Deems is still angry with Sportcoat and treats him cruelly. At first, Sportcoat is his normal self; he acts jovially and tries to get Deems to return to baseball. Eventually, though, Deems upsets Sportcoat, and Sportcoat responds by suffocating him. Sportcoat tells Deems that he knows now why he shot him: it would be better for Deems to die young and healthy than old and miserable after a life of crime. Ultimately, Sportcoat lets up before Deems dies, but he tells Deems never to come near him again.
Not long after the events in the hospital, Sportcoat tells Elefante that he should go see Sister Paul. Elefante, who is now dating Melissa, the Governor’s daughter, does as Sportcoat suggests. Sister Paul tells Elefante and Melissa about her relationship with Elefante’s father and the location of the Venus. Elefante, Melissa, and Sportcoat go to the Five Ends Church and find the statue. Elefante thanks Sportcoat for his help and calls him “Mr. Sportcoat,” which fills the old deacon with great joy.
Roughly two years after finding the statue, Sportcoat’s funeral is held at the Five Ends Church. Many people attend the funeral, and the church has received some much-needed upgrades, all of which Elefante has funded. Most members of the Cause never saw Sportcoat after the shooting at the docks—only Hot Sausage has some insight into the last years of his life. Hot Sausage tells Sister Gee that Sportcoat managed to maintain his sobriety for the rest of his life. The last time Hot Sausage saw Sportcoat, he was walking into the water with a bottle of King Kong. Sportcoat wanted to drink it, but he didn’t. As he made his way into the water, Sportcoat told Hot Sausage to take care of some flowers that he planted for Hettie near the Five Ends Church.
Meanwhile, Deems returns to baseball. He manages to make a minor league team, and people expect that he will move up to the major league. Also, Elefante and Melissa get married, and Elefante finally begins to live a new, crime-free life. Additionally, Sister Gee and Potts start a romantic relationship with each other. The novel ends as Sister Gee takes the Staten Island Ferry to go see Potts while thinking about Sportcoat and his impact on the community.