Feverishly overwritten and densely plotted but nonetheless strongly compelling African-American southern gothic of a cardsharp whose scams against friends and foes become a metaphor for the paradoxical nature of religious faith. Born around 1900 into a poor farming family on the outskirts of New Orleans, James Cook runs away from home when he sees his father fatally beaten by a white sheriff who had designs on Cook’s mother. Though well-schooled in the Bible, the boy can—t accept a world in which God seems to permit black people to be savaged. And so he flees to the city, where he soon becomes the King Fish—a pimp, a pickpocket, a true ’slickster— like his hustler uncle Ed. While visiting the black shantytown of Gator Creek, he falls for the innocent affections of Sue Ellen, who not only marries him but follows him into a life of petty crime, then leaves him when he won’t have a family with her. King Fish next begins trafficking with the mad Reverend Malcom Cage, a wealthy white fundamentalist preacher whose missionary work often serves to swindle disaffected blacks. As a preacher, he learns both sides of the scam but yearns for a better life among Harlem’s swank cats. A return to his hustling ways lands him in prison, though, where he discovers that, even if he doesn’t believe in God, he has the power to redeem others. Once out of the slammer, King Fish makes his way to Harlem, then undergoing its famed renaissance. There, he meets Jimmie Lamar, the story’s narrator, who, despite a few wayward tendencies, feels that God has handed him a charmed life. He and King Fish try (optimistically) to defraud a wealthy French countess, but the scheme goes sour and Lamar loses the woman he loves—along with his ability to preach. Discursive, overly complex, but, despite occasionally cumbersome prose, a debut that makes a moving statement about redemption and loss.