“You know, I don’t really talk to that many other novelists,” James McBride told me. “I don’t spend a lot of time with other writers.” It was a statement that explained a lot, while at the same time shooting a pet theory out of the water. If McBride’s most recent books—the celebrated Deacon King Kong, published in 2020, and this summer’s The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store—feel as if they’re swimming hard against the tide of current literary fashion, it’s apparently not deliberate. McBride has had other matters on his mind. Perhaps the best way to write a Great American Novel is not to think of yourself as a novelist at all.
The other matters preoccupying McBride include music—as a saxophonist, he toured with Jimmy Scott, and he has written songs for artists as varied as Anita Baker and Barney the purple dinosaur—and the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church, founded by his parents in 1954, and to which McBride still belongs. The church is in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where Deacon King Kong is set, where McBride grew up, and where he keeps an apartment, although he also has a place in New Jersey for when he wants to be left alone to write. That’s where he wrote his National Book Award–winning 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird.
For someone who likes to keep one foot out of the writing profession, McBride has had plenty of success with it. His first book, 1995’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, a memoir, was a blockbuster hit, a darling of the book group set that spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list. His first novel, 2002’s Miracle at St. Anna, was adapted for the big screen by Spike Lee, and The Good Lord Bird brought the kind of recognition from the literary establishment that many a bestselling author covets in vain. Then it became an acclaimed TV series starring Ethan Hawke as the abolitionist John Brown. The novelist Gish Jen, one of the judges for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction, told me that her yardstick for literary greatness, then and now, is “heisted” from “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” an essay by T.S. Eliot. “There’s so much that I disagree with in that essay,” she added. “But I do agree that the whole existing tradition will be, if ever so slightly, altered by a real work of art, and that we writers should be trying to achieve such an alteration. It seemed to me that The Good Lord Bird succeeded.”
It is McBride’s two most recent novels, however, that strike me as especially, and sneakily, revolutionary. Both Deacon King Kong and The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store are about seemingly insignificant places: The Causeway housing project in Red Hook in the 1960s and the Chicken Hill neighborhood in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s, respectively. When I suggested to McBride that the two places are surprisingly similar, he agreed. “Red Hook is its own world,” he said, a townlike pocket of relatively ungentrified working-class life even as the rest of Brooklyn has developed around it. Chicken Hill—where no one had running water and a handful of Jewish immigrants remained in what had become a Black neighborhood—was far from urban, but both neighborhoods were enclaves, places set apart from their surroundings where, as McBride depicts it, everyone seems to know everyone else.
McBride, who is unaffectedly modest, would never advance any of his books as candidates for the Great American Novel, that semimythical phenomenon whose exact dimensions and qualities have never been satisfactorily defined. I’d like to make a case, though, for Deacon King Kong and, now, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store as better contenders for the 21st-century GAN than many other, more vaunted specimens that have gone before. It’s precisely the qualities that might prompt critics to view these novels as “small” that, paradoxically, make them so big. They are comic novels, ensemble pieces. They lack obvious heroic action. Their focus is intimate rather than sweeping. But in the words of Walt Whitman (an American writer McBride often brings to mind), they contain multitudes.
Deacon King Kong revolves around an inexplicable incident: An elderly deacon of the Five Ends Baptist Church walks up to a feared teenage drug dealer in the plaza that serves as the project’s town square, and shoots the kid in the head, although he succeeds only at nicking his ear. The deacon himself, a man fond of a drink, not only can’t explain why he did this, but refuses to believe that he did it at all. As the “Cause Houses” buzz with talk of the deacon’s imminent demise, a half-dozen subplots involve a purloined prehistoric artifact, a middle-aged Italian mobster falling in love, and the mystery of where the deacon’s late wife hid the church’s Christmas fund.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store offers a similar swirl of storylines and characters. The novel begins with a flash-forward to 1972, when a construction crew working on a new development in Chicken Hill discovers a skeleton in a derelict well. Then the story moves back to the ’30s, as Moshe Ludlow, a dance-hall owner in the neighborhood, decides to start booking Black musicians in addition to the klezmer bands beloved by Chicken Hill’s waning Jewish population. He does so on the advice of his wife, Chona, who insists on tending the Chicken Hill store the novel is named for, though it loses money—mostly because she extends infinite credit to her hardscrabble customers. Chona, a survivor of polio, wears a special boot to minimize her limp, and the first Black act Moshe books is a band led by the real-life drummer Chick Webb, who had an abnormally curved spine as a result of a childhood illness. The show is a tremendous hit. Moshe, who adores Chona, views disabilities as harbingers of good luck, and in fact, his decision to integrate his bookings (and audience) makes him prosperous.
Readers of The Color of Water will recognize some of Chona’s history. McBride’s maternal grandmother, whom he never met, was an Orthodox Jewish immigrant from Poland, also disabled by polio. But where Hudis Shilsky—the real woman—endured a loveless arranged marriage to a man who disparaged her in a country where she did not speak the language, McBride has allotted the fictional Chona a happier fate. When I told him that Hudis’ life struck me as the saddest story in The Color of Water, and that I found his fictional transformation of her loneliness very touching, McBride said, “I wanted my grandmother to have a life where she was loved.”
McBride’s mother—whose family sat shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning, after she left home and married a Black man, McBride’s father—refused to speak much about her past until the adult McBride set about writing his memoir. As a child, growing up with 11 siblings in a series of Black neighborhoods, he felt confused about what his white mother meant for his Black identity. The Jewish milieus in The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store feel a little less fully lived-in than the Red Hook of Deacon King Kong, but McBride has clearly done a lot of catching up. He knows that even what might at first seem like a homogenous Jewish community is fractured into a dozen or so subidentities in its own eyes. The German Jews are snobs, the Romanians are “crazy,” and Bulgarian Jews (like Chona) “can’t pour a glass of water without making a party of it.”
Nevertheless, Chicken Hill is a community. In contemporary parlance, that word too often translates to “a group of people I’m going to speak for whether or not they all agree with me or even know me.” In McBride’s novels, a community is a hodgepodge entity held together not by ideology but by place and by simple acts of support, like those of the Red Hook neighbors who filled his mother’s apartment with casseroles and offers of help after her first husband died, leaving her alone with eight kids. The plot of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store turns on Chona’s unhesitating decision to take in the orphaned nephew of her husband’s handyman, a Black child the government wants to lock up in a ghastly institution because he’s deaf. When I asked McBride how his faith has shaped this vision of community, he said, “I’m not interested in what any prophet said. I’m interested in what you, as a follower of that prophet, actually do.” Deacon King Kong is dedicated to “God’s people—all of ’em,” but it’s the people he talks about far more than the deity. As he tells it, the conversation at his church never touches on politics: “It’s ‘How are you doing? What do you need? Did you bring the food this week, or am I bringing it?’ The important thing is life and while life is going on, let’s just try to do what we need to do.”
A significant plot twist in The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store turns on an act of illicit plumbing. Class, I observed, seems to bind his characters together more than race or creed. McBride replied, “I’m big into that because I come from that,” relating the story of a recent interview in which he tried to talk about the power of the women in his church to a journalist who insisted that women don’t have power. “I was talking about the ability to negotiate with nothing because you can’t pull out a gun and shoot, and you don’t go into a room and start yelling. You just wait, be smart, and quietly move this chess piece here, you move that there, you move the rug, you stick the glass there, and then watch what happens and let the fools run about and do their thing and make their speeches and then jump off the bridge. Then you say, ‘What happened to him?’ ” (That’s the bones of another novel right there.) Instead, his interviewer wanted to get into “this liberal, heady argument about women not having power.” To him, this zoomed-out social analysis isn’t real. He added, “I can’t even talk to people like that because they haven’t stood at a bus stop at 11 o’clock at night trying to get home from their second job cleaning Ikea.”
It comes as no surprise that McBride is very much not online, and that the raging rhetorical controversies that preoccupy the writers who are don’t seem very real to him either. The closest he comes to a rant in The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is a passage about the future his characters can’t imagine, in which “devices that fit in one’s pocket and went zip, zap, and zilch delivered a danger far more seductive and powerful than any hot dog, a device that children of the future would clamor for and become addicted to, a device that fed them their oppression disguised as free thought.” It’s difficult to fit McBride’s fiction into a culture framework so profoundly shaped by discussions he considers irrelevant. And while McBride never glosses over the racism, antisemitism, ableism, and other forms of bigotry that afflict his characters, he remains, very unfashionably, optimistic. “I like Americans,” he told me. “I think Americans are resilient.” He’s a fan of Joe Biden and “enthusiastic about what’s happening now. I think this country is in a healing mode. I think people can’t see it, but we’re getting better.”
The books nominated for Great American Novel status in the past have tended to be about individuals struggling to define themselves against nature or the social order—whether the testing force is the Mississippi River or the elite of 1920s Long Island society. McBride’s earlier books—2008’s Song Yet Sung, about a fugitive enslaved woman with prophetic gifts, and The Good Lord Bird, about a boy caught up in Brown’s abolitionist insurrection—can be seen as abiding by that pattern. But Deacon King Kong and The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store represent a real departure, and are of a piece.
I asked McBride if he set out to present tales told in a communal voice, and he said no. The point of view keeps shifting because different people at different times are best suited to tell the story McBride wants to tell. “It’s the same story,” he said. “It’s just everyone has a different perspective. And so you’re trying to show all these perspectives, and you end up showing the community.” However, that can happen only when the story belongs to the whole community.
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Maybe, once, the most urgent stories Americans had to tell one another were about the possibilities and challenges of each person realizing their own distinct self. But today, the bigger challenge seems to be figuring out how so many different people—espousing so many diverse and sometimes conflicting identities, histories, and beliefs—can become one people without denying those identities, histories, and beliefs. McBride and I talked about how small-town life in places like Chicken Hill accentuates this dilemma because, unlike the ever-shifting landscape of bespoke online communities, the neighbors you find objectionable aren’t going anywhere. They can’t be blocked or muted or curated out of the picture. You have to figure out how to live with them.
McBride’s novels are among the few places you can find a vision of how such a life might work, might even become something joyful. They’re comic novels by necessity because the only way to do this is with a sense of humor. “My characters don’t take themselves too seriously,” McBride told me. “They’re just looking for the little, simple pleasures, because life is so tough and unforgiving and difficult.” But also, if you and your neighbors show up for one another, it can be a bit of heaven as well.