Sep 28 2011

Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy

JW McCormack

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If you happen to have grown up in America, chances are you hail from someplace other than where you are right now. Chances are also that, if you happen not to be native to the one of the coastal catchalls whose skylines regularly adorn book covers, nobody else much cares which obscure municipality thrust you from its bosom—and God help you if you want to write a novel about your hometown. When the dispiriting majority of contemporary fiction either takes place in New York City or in some nebulous, undifferentiated suburbia, the implication seems to be that in our haste to preserve the state of American letters, we have forgotten that there are actually fifty of them.

Once, before "regionalism" became a dirty word, nearly every state could count on producing an expert in local color like Erskine Caldwell (Georgia), Booth Tarkington (Indiana), or even John Steinbeck (rural California). Part folklore, part preservationist history, regional writing took for granted that, if literature is to be charged with gauging national character, it would emerge from tenant fields, alleys, and flophouse hotels rather than the boiled-down metropolis. This thinking was not exclusive to the hamlets: Nelson Algren's Chicago, Frank Norris' San Francisco, and John Fante's L.A. all found their civic identities in the underclass. Not only could the writer who set his sights on his own purlieu hope for countrywide readership, he could win Pulitzers; Tarkington won two. By 1984, municipal pride seemed unlikely to generate the same reward—but it did. The writer was William Kennedy. His city was Albany.

Kennedy's service to New York's state capital is enormous by any standard. A seven-book cycle, muckraker journalism for the Times Union, and a nonfiction "urban tapestry" whose impressively loopy title is O Albany!: Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels. In the Twentieth-Century, probably only Dublin has produced a more loyal son in letters. Ironweed, the masterpiece that earned Kennedy his Pulitzer, brings a neighborhood humanism reminiscent of the young James Joyce to its cast of boozehound derelicts, gravediggers, and blighted manslaughterers.

Kennedy's expertise and fixation on all things Albany is such a reliable trademark that one of the most shocking things about his new novel, Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, is that, after a negligible prologue, we leave Albany for a different country altogether. The year is 1957, and wannabe novelist Daniel Quinn is presently a journalist with the good luck to be in Cuba, pitching stories to the Havana Post and shadowing the late-career Ernest Hemingway around tropical dive bars when rebels seize the Presidential Palace. Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Quinn sets his sights on getting an interview with Castro—and on a beautiful gunrunner named Renata with ties to the revolution. Before long, the two are married in a Santería ritual by a priest of Changó, that religion's warrior king, and Quinn is pitched into a sleek series of humid night drives, secret assignations at compromised nightclubs, and treks through the jungle, always just one step ahead of Batista's men and one step behind Renata, deliriously in over his head:

So the theme for today will continue to be the dead, not enough of them yet. When Quinn decided to come to Cuba and write about revolution in two centuries he accepted the likelihood of corpses, but at a distance; not in the air around him, not as mental transients. Renata was flummoxed not by death but by the death of what she thought was love... She is driven to track what was lost, follow where it leads; and Quinn silently signed on for the ride. "You're the one who wears the dead like Changó's beands," he said to her.

The Cuban episode, a late aberration in Kennedy's career, veers perilously close to the same kind of Dad Lit that claimed Robert Stone, Russell Banks, and—nearly—Denis Johnson. The cinematic pacing, the exotic historical locale, Quinn's vicarious plug-yourself-in-here adventures with Renata (an explicit ringer for Ava Gardner) and the parade of famous tough guys (Hemingway, now there was a man!) all tip Kennedy toward the subgenre of middlebrow manly. But his prose—sharper and shorter than usual, probably in deference to the author of The Sun Also Rises—hangs on at every deft noir-ish turn, never succumbing to lazy pastiche. Best of all is his Castro, an impressively human rendering of the Comandante who falls halfway between Brando and Marcus Aurelius, and discourses elegantly on wars, the fate of tyrants, Hemingway ("His novel on the Spanish civil war can teach you about battle"), the theme of the traitor, and—what else?—cigars.

And with that, we're back in Albany. It is startling to realize that the absorbing entirety of the Changó's Beads section runs just over 100 pages, giving over the novel's next two thirds to a character-driven return to form. It is suddenly 1968, Bobby Kennedy has been shot, the possibility of revolution is drying up in the popular imagination, and Quinn, now recognizable as a version of William Kennedy himself, is doing his best to maintain journalistic integrity in the face of Albany's omnipotent mayor. There are vestiges of intrigue, as Quinn attempts to counter a plot to pin an assassination attempt on a homeless friend (owner of the titular shoes) and Renata—hardly bearing any relation to the sexy death goddess of the first section—runs afoul of her fugitive brother-in-law. Kennedy's interest is back to where it's always been: bar-crawling with used-up jazz legends and radical priests, sprinkling subplots with liberal doses of local history, and lessons in genealogy that gradually connect the Quinns to the cast of Kennedy's other books.

It's certainly big-hearted material. But also something of an energy drop, its enervation as surprising as the first part's machine-gun temerity. There's no denying that the two books masquerading as one in Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes make for an awkward combo. One is a daring departure from the Regionalist label, the other an embrace of it. There are lukewarm attempts to unite the two storylines: forced parallels are drawn between Black Power and Castro's rebels, and Kennedy fills in missing pieces from the first part via flashback. One of these, concerning a duel between Hemingway and an insolent weekender, hints at the paradox Kennedy is confronting. As his city's semi-official scribe, he is honor-bound to write the books his readers expect and bring his cycle full circle; but on the other hand, he's obliged to prove that his decision to stand by Albany and remain defiantly regional is, and has always been, a choice—he is capable of writing any damn book he pleases. Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes eventually makes clear which book that is, but it doesn't back down from a challenge either.

JW McCormack is a senior editor at Conjunctions.

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