It’s been a long time between drinks for William Kennedy fans – nine years and nine months, to be exact, since he published Roscoe, the seventh installment in his bewitching cycle of Albany novels. The long dry season has now come to a splashy end with Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which travels far beyond the city limits of Kennedy’s beloved, corrupt, and corrupting Albany, all the way to Cuba in the early days of a revolution that will topple the reptilian Fulgencio Batista and bring to power a charismatic young Communist named Fidel Castro. The story then returns to Albany a decade later for a flaming finale that showcases Kennedy’s abundant gifts and a few of his weaknesses.
Chango opens with a brief overture. In the middle of a summer night in 1936, a boy named Daniel Quinn is awakened by the sound of a man singing in the parlor downstairs. When the boy goes to investigate, he discovers that his father, George Quinn, and some “Negro” musicians have dragged a piano into the parlor to accommodate a guest, a horn player down from nearby Saratoga. It’s Bing Crosby. Accompanied by a piano player named Cody, Bing warbles and scats his way through the old coon song, “Shine,” while the boy looks on, delighted and amazed by his initiation to the tortured place where racism, showbiz, and celebrity collide. It’s a place he will revisit.
Cut to Havana in the spring of 1957. Daniel Quinn, recently retired as a reporter with the Miami Herald and now an aspiring novelist, is drinking alone at El Floridita, regular hangout of a fellow lover of declarative sentences, Ernest Hemingway. Quinn has come to Cuba to complete, in fictional form, the work begun by his grandfather, who’d come here to write about the Cuban uprising against the Spanish in the 1870s. Quinn soon strikes up a conversation with Hemingway. They hit it off. The master then offers the tyro some advice: “Remove the colon and semi-colon keys from your typewriter.” And: “Shun adverbs, strenuously.” After they’re introduced to a beautiful brunette named Renata Suarez Otero, Hemingway, fueled by double daiquiris, decks an obnoxious salesman from Baltimore with a wicked two-punch combination.
From this promising beginning the story takes off, as Quinn woos Renata and gets sucked into the intrigue and bloodshed of the blooming revolution. Along the way there will be a duel, a failed assassination attempt on Batista, gun-running, Santeria rituals (Chango is a powerful deity), kidnapping, torture, scorching sex, and, finally, Quinn’s coveted interview with Fidel at the rebels’ mountain hideout. The storytelling has the irresistible pull of a riptide.
But problems, little doubts, begin to pop up. For all of Kennedy’s renown as a maker of sentences, there are some stone clunkers in this book. Here’s an example: “Felipe’s sister Natalia, who had grown plump since Renata last saw her, she is eating for her pleasure instead of having sex, met them in the foyer, the only family member in the house, her parents en route to Mexico.” This sentence points straight toward a vexing question, one familiar to many writers of historical fiction: how much research is enough, and how much is too much? As his Acknowledgments page reveals, Kennedy did prodigious research for this novel, talking to such luminaries as Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Fidel himself, reading “too many books to list,” including Hugh Thomas’ magisterial history of Cuba along with memoirs, fiction, and biographies by the likes of Che Guevara, Norberto Fuentes, Tad Szulc, and Darryl Pinckney. Too often, unfortunately, this diligence leads to meandering asides about Renata’s family history and the history of Cuba that interrupt the story’s brisk flow. A shame, because the Cuba section of the novel is otherwise like getting a pleasurable case of whiplash.
Cut back to Albany in the summer of 1968, when the racially divided city is digesting the news that Bobby Kennedy has been shot in Los Angeles moments after winning the California presidential primary. Back on his home turf, Kennedy breezily unspools a trademark cast of characters – Daniel Quinn, now a hardened newspaper reporter, young Black Power agitators, neighborhood activists, vicious cops, winos, a defrocked priest, corrupt politicians (including Mayor Alex Fitzgibbon from Roscoe), madams and their working girls, Molotov cocktail-wielding white racists, and, problematically, Daniel’s father George, now deep in the arms of senile dementia.
As the story builds toward its racially charged climax, two unfortunate things happen. Renata, who had been such an electric presence in the Cuba section when Quinn courted and married her, virtually vanishes for 150 pages; and, far more distressing, much of the action is framed by the senile ramblings of George Quinn, who quickly grows tiresome as a tour guide through a nighttime city on the brink of self-immolation. The problem is that George’s dementia is revealed entirely through his words and actions. Compare this with Alfred Lambert’s mad tussle with Parkinson’s disease in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, an illness we experience, in all its harrowing hilarity, from inside Alfred’s addled mind. In that case, a much bigger gamble by the writer delivers a much richer payoff for the reader.
There is one moment in Chango that lays bare both Kennedy’s enduring appeal and his abiding Achilles heel. After witnessing a racial skirmish that nearly turns into a full-blown riot, Daniel Quinn hurries back to the newsroom to file his story, his brain boiling with the role his wino friend, Tremont, played in defusing the violence. As Quinn begins hammering his typewriter, the city editor, Markson, walks up to his desk and says:
“Tell me again about the riot. You don’t have a riot story?”
“It’s part of Tremont’s story,” Quinn said. “I can do a separate riot story if you want one, but Tremont’s the main story… I’ll get the action of the riot up high, don’t worry. But the riot isn’t the story, it’s Tremont. He’s central to what’s happening in this town tonight, and Matt Daugherty (the defrocked priest) is his white counterpart, the pair of them on an odyssey of Franciscan politics and leftover jazz. If you can stand it I’ll work in Trixie’s (the madam’s) stilettos and her fire extinguisher. I also want to underpin the political culture of the twenties with Big Jimmy the floating ward leader and his progressive coon anthem from 1911, and tie in the McCall-Fitzgibbon machine’s bulldozer politics as manifested tonight by the faux assassination plot, with Tremont as its victim, a wild man with an AR-15 given to him by a provocateur who wanted him busted with it to prove the Brothers were urban terrorists, and that’s the FBI’s work and I know you won’t print that, but that’s what it has to be. But we don’t need it. The victim foiled that plot, coming out of the alley where he’d hidden the gun and calming the riot with his shooting.”
Markson nodded, obviously rattled by the complexity of the story;
but he’d get it when he read it.
“I need the riot,” he said, and he went back to the city desk.
This exchange brought to mind a story about the time C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture on Shakespeare at Oxford. Afterward, a student groused that “no one talks like Romeo and Juliet.” To which Lewis replied, “They would if they could.” Well, I’ve worked for a lot of newspapers and I’ve never met a reporter who would deliver a soliloquy like Daniel Quinn’s, even if he could.
Which is not to say that such windy verbal flights make this a bad book. I don’t think Kennedy is capable of producing such a thing. Rather, it’s to say that Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes doesn’t quite measure up to some of the earlier Albany novels. My personal favorite is Legs, not the more highly acclaimed Ironweed, which won the Pulitzer Prize and got made into an overly gloomy movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. For me, three things set Legs apart: the pitch-perfect tone that’s at once exuberant and world-weary, the magnetic psychopath at the center of the book, the gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, and, best of all, the brilliant framing device. The book opens with four broken-down old friends drinking at a faded Albany bar, reminiscing about their adventures with Jack Diamond forty years earlier. One of the four is Marcus Gorman, who was Jack’s lawyer and is now writing Jack’s story, which is the story he proceeds to tell his three drinking companions, which is the novel. Joseph Conrad would have been jealous.
It’s a tough act to follow, and even if Chango falls short, I join Kennedy’s fans in hoping that the master, now 83 years old, doesn’t wait another decade to give us the next installment of his sprawling, bewitching Albany cycle. May it continue to spin for all time.