The novel opens with the main protagonist, Sportcoat, trying to shoot the local drug dealer in the face. True to his character he fails, only managing to blow an ear off. This action, successful or not, affects every major character in this novel. And every major character in this novel has their own story, their own story that somehow, sometimes tenuously, connects to the main narrative. It is quite impressive how all these stories link and come together at the end.
Sportcoat is 71 years old, a deacon at the Five Ends Baptist Church, and a raging alcoholic. Sportcoat is only one nickname used by the members of the church and the people who live in the Cause Houses. He is the character that everybody knows, the drunk that seems to be everywhere, the type of character whose nicknames are often preceded by the adjective “harmless”.
An adjective that no longer suits after the botched shooting. Everybody is baffled, including Sportcoat himself, as to why he would do such a thing. The drug dealer, Deems Clemens, was a favourite pupil Sportcoat taught at Sunday School, and coached at baseball. The proverbial golden child with a cannon for an arm, who was going to grow up and play in the major leagues before becoming a drug dealer.
So now everybody is just waiting for Deems to exact revenge, avoiding Sportcoat like a bad smell. while Sportcoat remains blissfully unaware that the event even happened.
This is only one arc of the narrative. Another major character, a gangster known as the Elephant, is visited by an old Irish gangster known as the Governor, nicknames abound in this novel. The Governor looked after the Elephant’s father while his father was in prison. His father was released from prison before the Governor, and apparently, he was holding on to a possession for the Governor awaiting his release. Unfortunately, the Elephant’s father has passed away and he has no idea where this possession is.
Then there is the archetypal Irish policeman. You know the story, busted back to uniform, once a detective, months away from retirement. Sergeant Potts is the officer dragged into the narrative, charged with investigating the shooting. Potts is the type who used to try to save the world, but now, with age and wisdom, knows it is sometimes impossible.
Apart from a wonderful plot, the strength of this novel resides in the characters. Not just the major characters. Every character in this novel, and the list is long, is beautifully written. They are so real, stooped with age, wracked with arthritis, lonely for love, they feel like they exist outside the confining covers of the book.
Another strength, the humour. The whole novel retains a humorous vibe, but there are some chapters that are just laugh out loud moments. The poor hitman sent to dispatch Sportcoat and his consistent failures spring to mind.
There is just so much going on in this novel, a shipment of cheese that always turns up that nobody seems to know anything about. An invasion of red ants that follow the cheese. The ants almost have an entire chapter devoted to them. Two love stories.
With all that is going on, you may think it easy to become lost, drowned in the diverging narratives, lost in the countless cast of characters, but you never do. The reader never feels overburdened or clueless. McBride guides them through.
This is a brilliant novel, with an ending that is just so good. 5 Stars.
James McBride is a native New Yorker and a graduate of New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. He is married with three children. He lives in Pennsylvania and New York.
James McBride is a former staff writer for The Washington Post, People Magazine, and The Boston Globe. His work has also appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.