Here we have the eighth installment of William Kennedy’s popular and much-honored “Albany Cycle” of novels set in New York’s flamboyantly corrupt state capital. The cycle began in 1975 with “Legs,” based on the life of the mobster “Legs” Diamond. Its high point came in 1983 with the publication of “Ironweed,” for which Kennedy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but Kennedy has maintained a high level of achievement throughout, deftly blending comedy and drama as, over the years, he has painted a portrait of a single city perhaps unique in American fiction.
“Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes,” like all its predecessors, is vivid and charming, but it also borders on the chaotic. Set in Cuba at the hour of Fidel Castro’s approach to power and in Albany in subsequent years — most particularly 1968, following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy — it has strongly autobiographical overtones that manage to give a certain shape to a tangled plot that at times borders on the incomprehensible. Daniel Quinn, its protagonist (and the grandson of the previous Daniel Quinn, protagonist of Kennedy’s 1988 novel, “Quinn’s Book”), is a journalist in Albany, as Kennedy once was, who in the first part of the novel is covering the Cuban revolution, as Kennedy did.
Kennedy, now in his 80s, is in the embrace of nostalgia as he looks back on the adventures of his youth, and this gives the novel much of its not inconsiderable appeal. The novel begins, after a brief cameo appearance by Bing Crosby, in Havana in March 1957, when the young Quinn goes to El Floridita, the famous Havana bar where Ernest Hemingway hung out, and musters the courage to approach the famous if totally over the hill novelist. I confess to finding the fictionalized Hemingway no more attractive than the real one, but the scene accomplishes the purpose of getting Quinn introduced to Renata Suárez Otero, a spectacularly beautiful woman with whom Quinn “had fallen in love before he’d said hello.” She “seemed as guileful as she was innocent,” and he is roped into her warm if dangerous embrace:
“She is a creature of perpetual intensity and mystical need, a nymph who could betray you in a blink with a stranger, if that act lit the flame that lights her days. You have an aberration wrapped into your life, Quinn, a walking, loving astonishment. Marry her quickly. She will understand your perception and will accept. Twice in the brief time you’ve known her she has admitted the possibility of marrying you someday, and she will accept now because of your persuasively absurd insistence. She is love insatiable but she has never accepted long life with her other lovers, who have all had the life expectancies of mayflies, products of her youthful misjudgment, her proclivity for fractured dreams, and her co-conspiracy in creating wrenching separations.”
Marry her Quinn indeed does, but for all her beauty she is a time bomb waiting to explode. Around her neck she wears the beads of Changó, “the warrior king of kings,” a “warrior who helps people in trouble” and, as Renata admits, “I am in trouble.” She has been hanging out with various opponents of Fulgencio Batista, the bottomlessly corrupt Cuban dictator who never gives a moment’s thought to knocking off anyone who gets in his way or merely seems to, and Renata qualifies. Too many of those whom she has loved or with whom she has been allied are dead — she “wears the dead like Changó’s beads,”Quinn tells her — and she is on the run.
Quinn wangles an interview with Castro in his forest lair — the fictional Castro is no more appealing than the real Castro, and every bit as given to revolutionary babble — but then matters leap forward a decade to June 1968. Quinn is now a reporter in Albany, a city often “described as a social and political sewer, a city without a soul, ruled by plundering, racist titans,” a characterization that Kennedy readily accepts but that does not prevent him from finding humanity, humor and vitality in its scoundrels. The time is June 1968, and Robert Kennedy has just been shot in Los Angeles. As his life slowly ebbs away, Albany is drawn into racial strife.
Quinn’s conduit into Albany’s black community is Tremont, alcoholic but smart and sly, who wears “two-tone shoes” and navigates the city’s diverse and frequently warring communities with surprising ease. Black Power is “in the air,” and growing strong: “Within two months the Brothers existed three-dozen strong, picketing unions and city hall, speaking at churches, joining peace marches, giving slum tours to the press and the clergy, and . . . dumping cockroaches on the desks of slumlords.” Kennedy, who also covered the civil-rights movement during his journalistic apprenticeship, vividly conveys the anger and pain of the period.
Renata is in Albany too, though she disappears from much of the novel before resurfacing, first in a flashback to Cuba and then in the concluding pages. She epitomizes the redemptive power of love, as she tells Quinn in Cuba during the hectic days before their sudden, impulsive marriage: “Love will save us and remake us. Love will do what parents and doctors and spouses cannot do. Love will do it all if you take it into your soul and caress it. . . . Nobody can know what love means, or how it arrives or how it lasts, or even if it exists, because we are never free of doubt. . . . I create love by making it, by believing in it even when it doesn’t exist. Love can make love exist, but love cannot make itself last. All I can do is try to make love exist, and sometimes I succeed. That’s what I do.”
Here, as elsewhere when the subject of love arises, Kennedy skates perilously close to mere sentimentality, but then that frequently happens in hands far less skilled than his. The more considerable difficulty with “Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes” is that there’s simply too much going on and it doesn’t always make a great deal of sense. As Quinn himself says when matters in Albany are nearing total chaos, “everything that’s happening, the whole megillah,” is crazy. Obviously Kennedy is revisiting his own past, which is why we get Cuba and Castro, Albany and Black Power in the same novel, but it’s a considerably less persuasive mix in fiction than it was in Kennedy’s own life. There’s also a heavy dose of Santeria, “the religious cult of the African slaves the Spaniards had brought to Cuba,” from which the tale of Changó arises and to which Renata pays obeisance.
Still, this is William Kennedy at work, and in the end the balance tilts in his favor. He is a fluid, engaging prose stylist, and frequently a witty one. “Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes” is a relatively minor episode in the Albany Cycle, but in its best moments it clearly belongs there.
By William Kennedy
Viking. 328 pp. $26.95
CHANGO’S BEADS AND TWO-TONE SHOES
By William Kennedy
Viking. 328 pp. $26.95