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Deacon King Kong: Synopsis & Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

Here’s the quick synopsis and chapter by chapter summary for The Deacon King Kong by James McBride. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.


Table of Contents
Quick Plot Synopsis
Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
Questions and Answers

For a non-spoiler version of the plot summary, see The Bibliofile’s review of The Deacon King Kong by James McBride.

Quick(ish) Plot Synopsis

In September 1969 in South Brooklyn, 71-year-old Deacon Cuffy Jasper Lambkin, also known as “Sportcoat“, drunkenly goes to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects and shoots Deems Clemens, a 19-year-old local drug dealer. No one knows why he shot him. Sergeant Potts, an older officer, and his young partner, Officer Mitch, are sent to investigate and arrest Sportcoat. Sixteen people saw the shooting, but no one talks.

Sportcoat is the deacon of the community church, Five Ends Baptist, and a good man. But he’s also a drunk who has had a rough life and whose wife Hettie died two years prior. He still has imaginary conversations with her (often regarding some missing church funds that she took). He was also once the coach for the Causeway baseball team, and Deems was once its star player. However, after his grandfather died, Deems left to deal drugs and is now part of a network of dealers controlled by Bunch Moon.

Everyone assumes Sportcoat is a dead man after the shooting, but Deems doesn’t retaliate against Sportcoat because of their history. Bunch sends Earl, his right-hand-man, to rough up Sportcoat (to send a warning about disrupting his business), but Earl’s attempts are comedically thwarted each time. Potts’s investigation is also hindered by everyone’s vague answers about Sportcoat’s whereabouts, so Sportcoat remains a free man.

Elsewhere in the Causeway, Tommy Elephante (the “Elephant”) is a guy who deals in storing and moving contraband, though he refuses to mess with drugs. (Coincidentally, Sportcoat works as a gardener for Elephante’s mother one day a week.) Tommy wants to marry a nice woman, move to a farm and get out of this life. He is approached by someone called The Governor, who knew his father, Guido, in prison. Guido was storing a valuable item (a small statue called the Venus of Willendorf) for the Governor before he passed away. The Governor has a buyer offering 3 million for it, and he wants Elephante’s help so they can locate it and sell it together.

Meanwhile, there’s a drug war brewing. Bunch’s supplier is Joe Peck, an Italian mobster, but Bunch has a plan to cut Peck out. Bunch also gets wind that Deems has an idea to cut Bunch out and deal with Peck directly. As a result, Bunch brings in a dangerous killer, “Harold Dean” (which turns out to be Haroldeen), to deal with Sportcoat, Deems and Peck.

One night by the pier, Sportcoat wants to talk to Deems about giving up the drug trade and playing ball again. However, Haroldeen makes her move, shooting Deems, Sausage (Sportcoat’s best friend) and Beanie (Deems’s right hand man). Sausage survives, but Beanie dies. Deems falls in the water and nearly drowns, but Sportcoat saves him. Afterwards, Haroldeen (who works for but has been misused by Bunch) meets up with Bunch and gets half her money. The other half is due when the rest of the job is completed, but she betrays him instead and leads Peck to him. Peck and his men kill Bunch.

After the pier shooting, Sportcoat realizes he wants to get sober. He goes to visit Sister Paul, one of the original founders of Five Ends Baptist. She tells him how Five Ends got started. It involved a young Guido Elephante preventing a young Officer Potts from getting shot. That same night, Guido asked a passerby, Sister Paul, for help in driving away some stolen cargo. Later, Guido repaid that favor by helping them secure the land for the church. He also asked them to hide the Venus of Willendorf statue for him, something only Sister Paul (and now Sportcoat) knew about.

Time passes. Sportcoat relays this story to Elephante, and Elephante gets engaged to the Governor’s daughter. They find the statute, and Elephante does his deal. Afterwards, Elephante helps Sportcoat by replacing the missing church money and paying to renovate the church.

Twenty-two months after Sportcoat shot Deems, Sportcoat passes away. Deems is now playing pro-ball. Sportcoat knew that he would drink again, so he decides to go to the harbor instead where Hettie killed herself and walk into the water. As he does, he tells Sausage the water is beautiful and drowns himself.

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Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

Chapter 1: Jesus’s Cheese

In September 1969 in South Brooklyn, 71-year-old Deacon Cuffy Jasper Lambkin, also known as “Sportcoat“, goes to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects (“the Cause”) and shoots Deems Clemens, a ruthless drug dealer, in the face.

Sportcoat was a peaceful and beloved man, the coach of the projects basketball team for 14 years, and deacon of Five Ends Baptist Church for 15 years. He also knows a lot about plants and is a good handyman. The people in the neighborhood gossip about why he did it, but they don’t really know, though the general feeling is that they “always knew old Sportcoat would do one great thing in life.”

Sportcoat’s wife Hettie Purvis is no longer around. She disappeared during the great snowstorm of 1967, and her body was found floating in the pier two days later. Tommy Elefante’s (“the Elephant”) men fished her out of the water and made clear that he was not responsible. (The Elephant is Italian and has a bunch of men working for him. No one knows exactly what they do, but they’re all scared of him.)

Sportcoat still has imaginary conversations with his late wife. That day, they argue about the free cheese. There’s delicious free cheese that gets distributed around the Causeway each month. They assume it comes from the government, but who fills out the paperwork and makes all this happen, they don’t really know. They just know it gets delivered to Building 17 and distributed.

After the shooting, the consensus in the neighborhood is that Sportcoat will likely be dead soon as well.

Chapter 2: A Dead Man

Sportcoat’s mother, who loved him dearly, passed away when he was young. He was raised by his stepmother and father, who didn’t particularly care for him (he was “admired by all whom he knew in Possum Point save the two people responsible for his well-being in the world”). He started drinking as an adolescent as a result, was a drunk by 14, and eventually settled on King Kong as his drink of choice.

He was born in Possum Point, South Carolina, and got the nickname Sportcoat after his mother was convinced by a medicine man that not saying his name for 8 months would help his back teeth grow in. He was there until 51, when he moved to New York City in 1949 to join Hettie, who was his high school sweetheart and working as a housekeeper for a white family in Brooklyn.

In general he’s been a lucky guy in terms of staying alive, surviving all (and seemingly every) type of malady. He spent a lot of time being operated on by medical students and dental students who needed practice. But after the shooting, it’s clear his luck has run out.

Chapter 3: Jet

There were 16 people who saw Sportcoat shoot Deems, but none of them said anything to the cops, not even the undercover cop that was present, Jethro “Jet” Hardman. Jet is a young, black officer that has been investigating Deems as part of the low end of the food chain that leads up to Italian crime figure Joe Peck at the top. Jet’s cover is that he’s a janitor with a drug habit.

Jet recalls seeing Sportcoat a little after 11:55 AM on that day, with a gun in his pocket, amble up to Deems and his posse. Sportcoat had taught Deems baseball as a kid, but that was a different time. As Sportcoat reaches into his jacket, Jet shouts out a warning and Deems turns, causing the bullet to miss and hit Deems’s ear (as opposed to hitting him square in the forehead).

Seeing Deems on the ground, Sportcoat seems to change his mind about shooting him. He then gets on top of him and wrestles with him a bit before walking off. The police show up immediately after. Jet’s old partner recognizes him but arrests him as a potential suspect to prevent blowing Jet’s cover.

Chapter 4: Running Off

After the shooting, Sportcoat walks to the basement furnace room of Building 9 and sits there, drinking and having conversations with himself that are directed at Hettie. He’s muttering about her taking some church funds that didn’t belong to them. There’s a wall calendar and he notes that he needs to go to work (he has four jobs, most are one day a week).

Today it’s Thursday, so he goes to Itkin’s, a liquor store where he helps unload crates. Sportcoat’s best friend, Hot Sausage, shows up and tells him he needs to get out of town. Sportcoat is disoriented and doesn’t seem to know about the shooting. Hot Sausage explains what’s going on, attributes it to Sportcoat’s drinking and tells him to go lay low, but Sportcoat refuses to leave.

Chapter 5: The Governor

Tommy Elephante hears about the shooting an hour after it happens, and he assumes it’s over drugs which Joe Peck distributes in the neighborhood. However, having cops poking around makes it difficult for him to move stolen goods, which is a problem.

Two weeks ago, an Irishman named Driscoll “the Governor” Sturgess approaches him, saying that he needed some goods moved and Salvy Doyle had vouched for him. The Elephant doesn’t trust him, but then realizes that his father, Guido Elephante, had told him to be on the lookout for “The Governor” in the days before he died. Guido went into prison when Tommy was young, and he rarely talked after he got out. He suffered a stroke in prison, leaving him crippled (lame arm and leg), and then another one two years after he got out which killed him. Tommy was 20 when he died.

The Governor is cagey about what it is he needs moved and why he needs The Elephant to do it, but he implies that it’s worth a lot of money, much more than The Elephant typically deals in. The Governor says that Guido stored it for him long ago, but he doesn’t know where. Unfortunately, neither does The Elephant.

Chapter 6: Bunch

Bunch Moon, 31, is a local businessowner, co-director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development Corporation and someone involved in the local drug trade. Joe Peck is their supplier. He and his right hand man, Earl Morris, are concerned about how the shooting is going affect their sales in that area with cops around and Deems out of commission.

Moon directs Earl to lend their support to protestors who are rioting in a city nearby, hoping that will tie up the cops. He also wants to rough up the shooter, Sportcoat, as a warning. He plans to donate some money to the church afterwards, so the people don’t get too upset about it.

Bunch wants to handle this themselves instead of getting Joe Peck involved because he wants to cut Peck out and get their own supplier. Earl reminds him that Peck is part of the Gorvino family, but Bunch says that the Gorvinos aren’t what they used to be. Earl also warns that the Cause isn’t their turf, and the Elephant might not like them stepping on his toes.

Chapter 7: The March of the Ants

Just before fall starts, giant ants tend to appear in the Causeway, often attacking the free cheese which Hot Sausage is responsible for storing in Building 17 (Sausage works for the Housing Authority). (The ants originated from Colombia. A man named Hector Maldonez decided to abandon his wife and children for a new life in America, and she packed him a lunchbox full of ants. He threw the lunchbox into the trough that runs from the chicken factory to, among other places, the Causeway Housing.)

It is a combination of incompetence and neglect that allow things like the ant infestation to continue and compound in the Causeway, despite a handful of well-meaning outsiders who might take an interest in what’s going on. No one in the Cause pays much attention to the ant infestations, as they are just “a forgotten story from a forgotten borough in a forgotten city that was going under”. Meanwhile, the “death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story” and “phony versions of black and Latino life” play out on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Deems is on painkillers and in bed. He thinks about his cousin Rooster, who first taught him how to sell heroin when he was 14. Rooster later died in a drug robbery. Deems also wonders why Sportcoat, someone he looked up to and one of the only people he allows to talk back or give him grief, shot him. He reminisces about his days playing baseball with Sportcoat as his coach.

Two members of Deems’s crew, Beanie and Lightbulb, are checking on him. They are trying to sort out how to defend their turf from the Watch Houses (a rival housing project nearby) in Deems’s absence. They also report that Earl is going to beat up Sportcoat. None of them want that to happen, but they don’t want to argue with Earl. (Deems thinks Earl should have given him better protection, considering how Deems only gets a 4% cut of the sales.) Deems tells his crew to leave Sportcoat’s blind son, Pudgy Fingers, alone. He plans to tell Earl to leave Hot Sausage out of it, too.

Before they leave, Deems tells his crew to warn him if they see the ant infestation heading his way, though he doesn’t explain why.

Chapter 8: The Dig

The Christmas Club collection funds that Hettie had taken before her death still haven’t been recovered, though Sportcoat assures them he’s looked for it. Three days post-shooting, Sportcoat goes to see Rufus Harley, Sportcoat’s second closest friend, in the Watch Houses to ask him for advice about it. Rufus is a janitor at the Watch Houses and was one of the founding members of Five Ends Baptist Church but quit 14 years ago. Rufus also had a falling-out with Hot Sausage.

Rufus suggests asking Sister Paul, who used to handle the collection funds, where it might be hidden. She was also a founding member of the church, along with her daughter Edie, Hettie, Rufus and an Italian man. As an aside, Rufus tells Sportcoat that the church was originally to be named Four Ends (representing God’s hands coming from each cardinal direction), but the Italian man added a back wall painting so they named it Five Ends (“since Jesus is an end to Himself”).

As Sportcoat leaves, Earl shows up to attack him with a pipe, but Earl gets hit in the head by a baseball and knocked into a broom closet, unseen by Sportcoat. Two young kids then come running by to fetch their baseball and scamper off.

Chapter 9: Dirt

At the Five Ends choir rehearsal, “the Cousins“, Nanette and Sweet Corn, are arguing — as they have been for the past 23 years — when two white cops show up, Sergeant Potts Mullen and Officer Mitch Dunne. Sister Veronica Gee works as a cleaner for a house that is across the street from a bar Sergeant Potts frequents, Rattigan’s, so she recognizes him. The officers are looking for the shooter. They have a warrant, but it’s for for someone named Thelonius Ellis, which was the name they were given. (The police know who it is — drunk guy who everyone knows — they just don’t know Sportcoat’s real name. )

Sister Gee tells Potts that everyone in the Causeway knows Jet is undercover, so they should just go ask him for the name, and confirms that Sportcoat is a deacon here. She tells him that Deems was the star player on the baseball team Sportcoat coached, but he’s been selling a drug around the projects the last few years that’s ruining people’s lives. Sportcoat unraveled when Hettie died — Gee thinks Hettie killed herself — and got drunk and probably wanted to “clean this place up in one big swoop” by killing Deems.

Potts and Sister Gee seem to understand one another and she understands that Potts means well, though they are on different sides of the issue. (They’re into each other.) Potts tells her Sportcoat will be safer if he’s arrested by the police, since they’re more interested in going after the drug dealers, but Sister Gee counters that Pudgy Fingers will be taken away by social services if that happens. Potts insists that this can’t be ignored because of the people Deems was involved with.

Chapter 10: Soup

The next morning, some musicians (Joaquin Cordero and his band, Los Soñadores) are playing in the plaza to celebrate Soup Lopez, Joaquin’s nephew, being released from jail. Joaquin is a bookie, but his band is the most popular in the Cause and always draws a small crowd. (His ex-wife is Miss Izi Cordero and they bicker a lot.) Sportcoat goes to listen, but Sausage catches him, telling him to go back inside because Deems is out of the hospital.

Sister Gee tells them the police are looking for a “Thelonius Ellis.” Hot Sausage is annoyed, since it turns out Thelonius Ellis is his name (another one one of his aliases is Ralph Odum). His license has Sportcoat’s picture on it, and his car is registered under that name. Both he and Sportcoat use his license so that’s probably why the police have his name. Sausage also has a warrant out for him in Alabama so he doesn’t want the cops on him. Sister Gee tells Sportcoat to turn himself in, but Sportcoat refuses. Instead, Sportcoat tells Sausage he needs his baseball stuff back, saying he wants to start the baseball team up again to get the kids around here back on track. Sausage tells him he’s nuts, since it ended a long time ago when Deems left the team and took half the guys with him to sell drugs instead.

Dominic Lefleur and his friend Mingo show up. Dominic is Sportcoat’s Haitian neighbor. He offers Sportcoat a vodou doll for protection, which he says will bring good luck. Meanwhile, Soup announces that he’s now a Muslim. When he is offered a bottle of brandy, he declares that he no longer drinks alcohol because it is a device for keeping people down.

Then, a series of (comedic) accidents causes a fight to break out among the crowd, and in the midst of it all, Earl creeps up on Sportcoat with a switchblade. In the midst of it all, Sportcoat is trying to get his hands on the bottle of brandy, as it rolls around in the commotion of the crowd. Just when Sportcoat is about to get his hands on it, Soup grabs it from him and tosses it away (calling it a poison), and the brandy hits Earl instead, knocking him out.

From a distance, a police siren is heard, presumably headed over to check out the commotion. Sister Gee shoos everyone away, and the plaza is soon empty.

Earl awakes to find himself on a bench of an empty subway platform. A large man (Soup) and an attractive black woman (Sister Gee) are seated next to him. Soup explains that he was knocked out, and they checked his pockets for an address. Earl lives in Gates Avenue in Bed-Stuy, so the train here can send him in that direction. Soup and Sister Gee hint they they know Earl is here to cause trouble, and that he should leave. Gee also mentions that she knows Earl’s father, a Reverend Harris at Ebenezer Baptist. Soup gives Earl back his switchblade, and the two stay there until they hear Earl’s train depart.

Back outside, Sister Gee thanks Calvin, the subway tollbooth operator for his cooperation in temporarily shutting down the station. Soup explains to Sister Gee that he and Calvin are old friends who used to watch Mr. Rogers (“You mean the nice little white man who sings? With the puppets?”) together.

(Soup says that 1-4-3 is Mr. Roger’s address. It refers to numbers Mr. Rogers liked, signifying “I(1) Love(4) You(3)”.)

Chapter 11: Pokeweed

A while later, four blocks away from the subway station, Tommy Elephante chats with his mother. She needs blood thinners, but is planning on taking some pokeweed (a plant that grows near the harbor with poisonous roots) instead, as a natural remedy. She says that her gardener (Sportcoat) can help her because he knows a lot about plants.

After some research, Elephante has confirmed that the Governor and his father, Guido, were cellmates at Sing Sing for two years. Secretly, Elephante hopes that whatever his father was holding will be enough to get him out of this life. The money is all in drug trade now, which Elephante refuses to get involved in. All Elefante really wants is to marry a nice country girl and live on a farm.

Joe Peck stops Elephante, asking him to help out with a big drug shipment from Lebanon. Elephante refuses as usual, but Peck explains that this is a special situation and to do it for old times’ sake (they went to high school together). Peck explains that he’s caught wind that he’s being cut out of the drug trade (by Bunch), and he needs the money. He offers Elephante 8 grand for one hour’s worth of work. (Apparently, in the interim between Chapters 10 and 11, Earl was questioned by the police, who Peck bribes for information. Earl told them everything, including about Bunch’s plans to cut out Peck.) It sounds like easy money, but Elephante knows the Feds are everywhere right now, likely watching Peck and the Gorvinos. He refuses again, and Peck drives off.

Chapter 12: Mojo

Later that afternoon, Sportcoat is in the building boiler room, drinking and having an imaginary argument with Hettie. Sausage is down there, too, fixing a generator (it’s his job to maintain) which is connected to the rooms above. For some reason, the lights in the boiler room are flickering too. Sportcoat promises Sausage that he’ll turn himself in to the police so they don’t give him trouble.

The imaginary Hettie tells Sportcoat that the church money is in “in the palm of His (God’s) hand.” Sportcoat tells Sausage that he thinks some ghost-slash-witch-form (a “mojo”) of Hettie is following him around, and they end up joking around and laughing around various superstitions and remedies for exorcising witches.

Sportcoat wants to look for his old baseball stuff, but generator shorts out, leaving them in darkness. Sportcoat tries to tell Sausage that someone else is down there, but Sausage is focused on fixing the generator. When they turn it back on, they hear a grunt, the lights come on and they find Bunch’s triggerman (Earl) sprawled out. It’s clear he was electrocuted when they turned on the generator, but he’s still alive. They recognize that Earl likely after Sportcoat, and dump his body in an alley.

Earl wakes up 20 minutes later in the alley. His gun is still there, but the bullets are missing. He has other urgent work to do, so he leaves.

Chapter 13: The Country Girl

Elephante visits the Governor. The Governor runs a successful bagel shop. His wife used all their money to buy it while he was in prison, built up the business and then passed away three years after he was released. When the Governor’s attractive daughter (Melissa) walks in, Elephante sees his future. He imagines running a country store with her by his side. They chat later, and he’s smitten.

The Governor’s younger brother, Macy, was an allied solider stationed in Austria following WWII, who found a stash of Nazi loot. He shipped it back to himself piece by piece over time, but sold very little of it. Later, Macy decided to return almost all of it, shipping it back piece by piece. However, there was one small, valuable statue of a fat girl he kept, the Venus of Willendorf. It was stored in a reliquary (small box, usually adorned with jewels). The Governor had it, but when he was in prison, he asked Guido to fetch it and hide it. Now that the Governor has an illness, he wants to sell it before he passes away.

The Governor says he has a buyer offering 3 million for it. However, neither the Governor nor Elephante knows where it is. All either of them know is something about it being “in the palm of God’s hand like that little song you used to sing.” Guido wasn’t religious, so they don’t think it’s a church. Instead, there’s a greeting card that Guido left for Elephante. On one side, it has a picture of the Cause docks from the 1940’s. On the other, there’s an Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

There’s also a sketch of a tiny box with a wooden stove and firewood inside, plus a cross above it. On one side of the five-sided box, there’s a stick figure with a circle around it.

Chapter 14: Rat

Meanwhile, Bunch has invited Lightbulb (Deems’s right hand man) over to his Bed-Stuy Brownstone (as part of his plan to cut out Peck). Earl is banged up from his failed attempts to attack Sportcoat, but present nonetheless. Bunch asks Lightbulb about how Deems got control of that area.

Lightbulb also explains that Deems was raised by his grandfather (his father wasn’t around and his mother was a drunk). He was the star baseball player on their team, but when his grandfather died, he left it to sell drugs. Deems’s cousin, Rooster started selling. Their crew — Deems, Lightbulb, Beanie, Sugar and a guy named Bumps (Mark Bumpus) — worked for him. But their crew got sent to juvy (Spofford). While they were in there, Rooster was robbed and killed. Bumps got out of juvy first, so he started running things. When the others got out, Bumps hired the rest of the crew, including Deems, to sell for him. Deems was the best at it, but he and Bumps had bad blood from juvy (where Bumps beat him up and stole his cash). Deems ended up getting back at Bumps by crippling him (Deems made some customers think Bumps had screwed them, so they beat Bumps up). Afterwards, Deems ran things. Bumps tried to get into smuggling stuff instead, but that stepped on Elephante’s toes and no one saw him again.

Lightbulb also tells Bunch that after getting shot, Deems has been more strict on who he’s willing to sell to and reigning them in. Lightbulb thinks it’s just a matter of time before their rivals (the Watch Houses) come try to horn in on their territory. Lightbulb also admits tells them that he thinks Deems wants to cut them out and just deal with Peck directly.

After Lightbulb leaves, Bunch tells Earl that he’s bringing in someone else, Harold Dean, to deal with the lot of them: Sportcoat, Deems and Peck. Bunch realizes he’s losing control of that area and wants to flatten things out.

Chapter 15: You Have No Idea What’s Coming

Dominic has been “accidentally” running into Bum-Bum since Soup’s party, which was a week ago. (Bum-Bum is the nickname for T.J. Billing, head usher at Five Ends. Her husband ran off with another man and moved to Alaska.) Sergeant Potts walks in as Dominic is helping Bum-Bum, Sister Gee and Izi out at Five Ends.

Sister Gee goes to talk to Potts. They converse easily, unlike Sister Gee and her husband. When Potts asks about what happened with Earl and why the tollbooth was shut down, Sister Gee gets defensive. However, Potts isn’t interested in that. They want the guy Earl works for (Bunch Moon). Potts insists that whatever Sportcoat got mixed up in, it’s dangerous. There’s a drug war brewing, and he should turn himself in for his own protection. Potts tells her that they guy Bunch has called in (Dean) is very dangerous. Everyone in the Cause has been trying to protect Sportcoat by being vague about where to find him, but if Dean is poking around, then everyone here is in danger.

As Potts leaves, Sister Gee’s heart aches a little, and Potts feels a pull towards her as well.

Chapter 16: May God Hold You…

It has now been two weeks since Sport shot Deems. Sportcoat goes to his normal Wednesday job, which is helping a little old Italian lady (Elephante’s mother) with her gardening. He’s been working for her for the last four months and he’s fond of her, but he can never remember her name. He calls her Miss Four Pie because she had four blueberry pies in the oven the first day he worked for her. She explains to Sportcoat that she needs pokeweed, and they spend the day looking for it and bringing it back.

She lives with her son (Elephante), but Sportcoat’s never met him. However, this day, as he leaves he runs into Elephante. They introduce themselves, and Elephante offers him some extra money for taking good care of his mother. Sportcoat refuses, though, because he’s been paid and he appreciates Elephante fishing Hettie out of the water when she died.

As Sportcoat leaves, he invites Elephante to the church, and he tells Elephante: “I hope God holds you in the palm of His hand” — which causes Elephante to freeze. Upon inquiry, Sportcoat explains that it’s their church motto. At the church, there’s Jesus with “a big old circle” and the motto above him. (It was originally a white Jesus as drawn by a local artist, but later Sister Bib’s son Zeke, a housepainter, was asked to make him Black. Sportcoat and Sausage helped. The result was “horrible,” but at least he “had emerged a Negro.”) Elephante asks more about the painting, and Sportcoat happily answers.

Chapter 17: Harold

Afterwards, Sportcoat and Sausage drink and gossip about Sportcoat’s encounter with a real, live gangster (Elephante). Sportcoat tells Sausage that he’s going to try to convince Deems to play baseball again and give up selling drugs. He asks Sausage to let Deems know he wants to talk and clear things up.

Deems is hanging out at Vitali Pier with an attractive young woman, Phyllis, who is visiting from Atlanta. (Beanie is keeping watch.) A part of him longs for the old days, just playing baseball. Deems was originally enrolled in St. John’s to play college ball after high school, but he didn’t show up. The college coach, Mr. Boyle, came looking for him and found him dealing drugs instead.

Deems has been trying to discreetly get things in place so he can approach Peck with his plan to cut Bunch out of the equation. He needs to make sure his buyers will stick around and that he has enough crew for protection and whatnot when Bunch is gone. However, Deems is worried about Earl and Bunch. After Earl got his ass kicked all over the Causeway, he was weirdly cool with it. Deems got to this point by being smart, so he knew that something was wrong. Deems had someone investigate, and today Deems got word that Bunch knows about his plan to cut him out and has sent someone to deal with him. Deems suspects Lightbulb is the one who ratted on him.

Just as Deems is making progress with Phyllis, Sausage shows up completely hammered and he’s wearing Sportcoat’s umpire outfit. He wants to talk, Sportcoat thought the umpire outfit would make Deems nostalgic. Deems tells him to come back when he’s sober, but he insists. Finally, Sausage tells him that Sportcoat wanted to warn him about someone named “Harold Dean” (which turns out to be Haroldeen, a female name) coming to get him. Suddenly, Phyllis pulls out a gun and shoots Beanie and Sausage in the chest. Then, she turns and shoots Deems.

Deems falls into the water, but doesn’t know how to swim. However, Sportcoat comes and fishes him out.

Chapter 18: Investigation

On Saturday, a few days later, the free cheese is being distributed by Sister Gee in Sausage’s absence. Rumors are floating around about what happened. Potts shows up and tells Sister Gee that “Ralph Odum” (alias for Sausage) is presumed drowned, since they can’t find the body. Beanie (Randall Collins) is dead. Deems was shot in the left shoulder and survived. “Theolonius Ellis” (who they think is Sportcoat) was shot in the chest and survived.

Sister Gee thinks it’s strange that Sportcoat’s legal name (Cuffy Lambkin) hasn’t come up yet. As Potts talks, it’s clear that (because of the mix-up with identities and licenses) the person they think is Sportcoat is actually Sausage, and the police have no idea what happened to Sportcoat. (So, Sausage was shot, but he’s alive.) (In the process, Sister Gee also learns that Sausage and Sister Bibb have a thing going.)

Sister Gee does not correct Potts about the misunderstanding. After he leaves, she tells everyone else about the mix-up.

Chapter 19: Double-Crossed

The day after the shootings, Peck shows up at 2 AM at Elephante’s dock. His big shipment from Lebanon is due in nine days, but the Vitali Pier is crawling with cops because of the shooting.

Peck fills Elephante in on the details (which learned from the cops that he bribes). Peck thinks Sportcoat showed up with Sausage to finish Deems off (and, because he got his intel from the cops, he thinks one of them drowned and one got shot). Peck think Elephante is the one responsible because Sportcoat is his gardener, but Elephante swears he’s not.

Elephante also says they need to find out what really happened, since the idea of his drunk gardener taking out all these young strong guys doesn’t make sense. Peck adds that Potts said something about a female shooter, and Elephante says he’ll talk to Potts.

Chapter 20: Plant Man

Sportcoat has been hiding out in Rufus’s basement since the shooting. In his imaginary conversations with Hettie, she reminisces about the old days. She talks about how she left South Carolina after the nice lady she was a nurse for was dying. The daughter and son-in-law wanted to get out of paying her. She moved to New York, and Sportcoat joined her three years later, but he was never the same man. He used to love plants, but never grew one thing in their house.

She tells him that hates watching him drink himself to death, and Sportcoat thinks about how he chose booze over Hettie (his Moonflower, because that was her favorite flower). When Rufus returns, Sportcoat asks him about the old days and where to find Sister Paul (“Out in Bensonhurst. Near the hospital where Sausage and Deems is.”).

Chapter 21: New Dirt

Potts shows up at Elephante’s place to talk to him. Potts tells Elephante about when he first met his father, Guido. They’d come to bust his operation, and Potts was chasing down a guy that was about to shoot him dead. Guido accidentally-but-maybe-on-purpose hit the guy with a truck before that happened.

Elephante tells Potts that he didn’t know Sportcoat (or “Sport Jacket”, as he calls him), they trade the little information they know. Potts tells him that the day after the shooting, a homelessman man he knows, Dub Washington, reported it to him and told him about the female shooter. Potts stresses to Elephante that the shooter is female, attractive, a killer and out to kill Peck.

Chapter 22: 281 Delphi

Bunch Moon owns a brownstone at 281 Delphi, which he uses as lookout. He dresses in an MTA uniform when he visits to seem inconspicuous to the neighbors. He finds Haroldeen (who he calls Haroldeen the Death Queen) waiting there. Haroldeen is 29 and has lived a hard life. Both her and her mother work for Bunch, but he has taken advantage of both of them (for sex, to do his dirty work, etc). Haroldeen assures Bunch that she’ll deal with the guys who are still alive, but she wants her money now so she can split after.

Bunch only gives her half and she accepts. As she leaves with the cash, Bunch realizes he’s been betrayed as Joe Peck bursts through the door.

Chapter 23: Last Octobers

Three days post-shooting, Deems is still in the hospital and he has still not said anything to the cops. Sportcoat shows up with a hideous get-well-soon doll from Dominic. Sportcoat also gives him a squeeze ball so he can strengthen his pitching arm. Deems starts cursing at him and telling him to get out. Sportcoat reminds him that all he ever did was care for him, but Deems keeps cursing.

Before Sportcoat leaves, he puts Deems in a chokehold to make him listen. Sportcoat explains to him that he’s in the “last Octobers of life” and he now understands he tried to kill him because he didn’t want to watch him sink further. He’d rather remember him as a good boy and a great pitcher “than as the sewer you has become”.

Chapter 24: Sister Paul

Sportcoat shows up at the Brewster Memorial Home for the Aged in Bensonhurst, looking for Sister Paul. Sister Paul is now 104 years old, but she recognizes him as Hettie’s husband. Sister Paul decides to tell Sportcoat the story of the founding of Five Ends.

Sister Paul, her husband, her daughter Edie, Hettie and Sister Gee’s parents were all friends. They started the church in Sister Paul’s living room. The Cause Houses were all Italians then. One night, Sister Paul is walking back after work and sees a cop almost get shot (Potts), but someone else (Guido) hits the guy with a truck. Guido is frantic, not about the accident but about the cargo. He offers Sister Paul $100 to drive the truck away. (He can’t drive because of his lame leg.) She does it for free, because she believes God wanted her to.

Later, the church wanted to buy some land, but no one would sell to them. Finally, someone tells them one guy is willing to sell to them, which turned out to be Guido Elephante, and that’s how the church got started on Silver Street, next to Elephante’s storage house.

They start digging out the foundation with shovels, but it’s very slow. One day, Guido shows up with a tractor, and he digs out the whole foundation and basement in three days. Then, Guido offers to give them the land (they’d only paid $400 out of $6,000) if they let him put something on the back wall of the church. She agrees. Telling only Sister Paul, he puts the reliquary with the statute in a box and builds it into the wall. The next day, the painting of Jesus goes up over it (“Jesus’s left hand, is right on the cinder block where that soap is.”)

Sister Paul also tells him that the cargo in the truck was stolen cheese. Guido is the one who started delivering free cheese each month after the church opened, and it kept getting delivered even after he died.

Chapter 25: Do

Jumping forward in time, Elephante is now engaged Melissa. A week ago, Sportcoat brought Elephante to meet Sister Paul (who told him “you look like your daddy but fatter”). (It’s implied that in the interim they figured out that Sportcoat had come across the information that Elephante had been seeking.) She tells him everything she told Sportcoat and more.

Listening to Sister Paul reminisce about what the Cause used to be like, Elephante understands why his mother calls him dumb for worrying about whether or when “the colored, the Irish, the Jews, the outsiders were invading our block.” He remembers growing up there happily around all of them, and no one really “owned” the block.

Afterwards, Sister Paul asks him to bring her some of the free cheese. She doesn’t know why it still shows up at the Cause, and she assumes it’s just from Jesus, but she wants him to bring her some. Elephante agrees. She also tells Elephante that the security guard at Brewster Memorial has been paying for her stamps and envelopes to send tithes back to the church every week for the last twelve years, so she asks him to get him some Mars Bars which he likes. Elephante promises to supply him for the rest of his life.

After some research, it’s determined that the Venus of Willendorf is apparently a limestone carving that is the oldest known three-dimensional object in the world. Elephante and Sportcoat go into the church one night to get it, and it’s there. After Sportcoat helps him, Elephante tells him he’ll replace the Christmas box money (Sportcoat estimates it was around $3,000-$4,000).

Chapter 26: Beautiful

Twenty-two months after Deems’s shooting, Sportcoat passes away. With Sportcoat gone, the Cousins have taken over guardianship over Pudgy Fingers. On the day of the funeral, the church is in the middle of a renovation, though no one knows where the money is coming from. It’s a large affair, with people from all over coming and free cheese everywhere. (After the funeral, there would never be free cheese again.)

In addition to all the church members, Potts, Jet and Elephante are there, too. Finally, Deems arrives late, but he’s now playing for the Iowa Cubs, a minor league affiliate to the Chicago Cubs. His shoulder healed, and he ended up moving in to live with Coach Boyle while playing college ball for a year, before going pro.

No one knows how Sportcoat died or why there’s so much cheese at the funeral. They also don’t know where he’s been the last 14 months. After the funeral, Sister Gee asks Hot Sausage what’s going on after everyone else is gone. Sister Gee tells Sausage what Sister Paul told her (re: Elephante and the statue). (Elephante replaced the back wall with a proper black Jesus and not the monstrosity from before.)

Sausage then fills in the rest of the story. Sportcoat tells him about Elephante giving the church a bunch of money. He says he’ll take care of Deems and his boys so they won’t be a problem anymore. He also tells him that Pudgy Fingers wasn’t his or Hettie’s child. A woman abandoned him when he was 5 or 6. Sportcoat knows he will drink again, so he goes to the pier where Hettie died and walks in. When Sausage tries to stop him, he says that “Sausage, the water is so warm! It’s beautiful.”

The next week, Sister Gee follows her heart and goes to see the newly retired (former Sergeant) Potts.


Questions and Answers

Who was supplying the cheese?

This answer isn’t answered explicitly in the book. We know that Guido originally gave them the cheese, but that it continued to be delivered after he died. At Sportcoat’s funeral, there is a ton of cheese and then there’s none after that.

I think this is a question that’s purposely left somewhat open-ended and open for debate. Sister Gee thinks it was from Jesus, and perhaps that’s a valid interpretation in this case. Any of the alternatives (Sportcoat? Elephante? The Federal Government?) don’t make sense for various reasons. Sportcoat — with what money? Elephante — why would he stop? The Federal Government — why would they stop after Sportcoat’s funeral?

What happened to the Church Christmas Club money box? Why wasn’t it found?

This also isn’t answered explicitly in the book. We know that Hettie was the treasurer for Five Ends Baptist and the box went missing after she died. She has said that the money is in “the palm of His (God’s) hand”, citing the motto of the church. It’s also not clear how much was in there. At the very beginning, Sportcoat asks if it was something like 14 dollars or if it was in the hundreds. By the end, the number has grown to 3-4 thousand.

I think this is left open-ended. It’s possible if Hettie was citing the church’s motto, she found a way to reinvest the money in the church.

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