Deacon King Kong – James McBride
My To Read list is always in flux. I’m constantly adding books, like any good reader should. And also culling books, figuring if a title has been on the list for a few years and I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, odds are I never will. The list tends to grow a lot in December, when various Best Of lists hit the internet, and I make additions that seem to be earning universal acclaim.

This book was on damn-near every 2020 Best Of list I reviewed. And with good reason. It is excellent.

It is a wide-ranging tale focused at a housing project of Brooklyn in 1969. The arrival of hard drugs, and the violence associated with them, are beginning to upset the uneasy balance of the community, which has allowed African Americans, Latino immigrants, second generation Italians, and third generation Irish to live in relative peace.

At the center is Sportcoat, a kindly old drunk who used to coach the projects’ baseball team. His wife has recently passed and he walks around the projects in a drunken stupor, talking as if she were still there. One day Sportcoat walks up to the project’s main dealer, a kid named Deems, and shoots him in the ear for no apparent reason. Deems was once Sportcoat’s best player, a pitcher that seemed destined to get out of the projects through his rocket right arm, but who chose the life of selling heroin over the uncertainty of baseball.

The aftermath of this shooting is the loose thread that holds the remainder of the story together. Throughout McBride spins out a series of delightful characters. There is a Hispanic couple, now divorced, who get into constant, humiliating and hilarious verbal battles in front of the entire neighborhood. There’s an old Italian lady and her son, a crime boss of some kind, who are a connecting point between the original, European inhabitants of the projects and their current, non-white inhabitants. There’s an Irish cop and an African American woman, who through several chance encounters find a spark that surprises them and gives their lives new meaning. And there are a small series of events from that past that combine to bring everyone together in a thoroughly heart-warming resolution.

I’m a sucker for a good ending. And McBride closes the book with a scene that hit me in all the right spots. It is right up there with the final paragraphs of Ben H. Winters’ World of Trouble as one of my favorite endings.

Hellhound on His Trail – Hampton Sides
This is a book I’ve heard about for years, but never properly added to my list. However, each January I hear the calls, “You HAVE to read this,” from various trusted internet sources. And this year I decided to tackle it.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit I knew little about the topic of this book: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the resulting manhunt for his accused killer, James Earl Ray. That, in itself, is a hell of a story. I had no idea that Ray was moments from getting on a plane in London that would have taken him to Brussels and, likely, prevented him from ever being captured. I had no idea about the FBI search for him, which took two months, spanned five countries and three different domestic intelligence services, and only had any success because of a handful of tiny, extraordinarily lucky breaks.

But what makes the book standout, and the reason people recommend it so highly, is how Sides tells the story. Through meticulous research, he is able to tell the story almost like a novel, reconstructing Ray’s life before and after the killing in extraordinary detail. One thing he did which I found interesting was always referring to Ray by whatever alias he was living under at the moment. Ray used at least five different identities between the book’s beginning and his capture, and referring to him by those names reenforces how difficult it was to track him down.

The book is not just about Ray, though. Sides gives as much attention to MLK’s days leading up to his death; the mood in Memphis, which was reeling from a trash collectors strike; and how MLK’s death along with a failed march on Washington in June to bring attention to poverty, in-fighting in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Robert Kennedy’s death all brought the Civil Rights age to an abrupt end.

This is a terrific book, presented in a style that allows those who don’t normally enjoy non-fiction to get sucked into it.