American author William Kennedy – who turns 85 on 16 January – is intricately tied to his hometown of Albany, New York. Most of his novels are set there, and his latest, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which was his first novel published after a nine-year layoff (this book came out originally in 2011 and is now available in paperback), is certainly no exception. However, this latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Ironweed (which was also turned into a film), expands its scope by pulling in major historical characters into the mix – and, perhaps most noteworthy, contains a 100 page section set in Cuba in 1957, well beyond the scope of Albany.
If anything, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes shows an author who is willing to stretch out and expand his palette, even as he grows well into his twilight years. However, it’s a mixed success. Elements of the novel work, while others don’t. Still, fans who have followed Kennedy’s career will probably be enrapt by this tale, which contains autobiographical overtones and a heck of a lot of research. (Just read the acknowledgements section of the book to see the dozens of books and personal conversations consulted just to get an idea of how much elbow grease must have gone into the creation of this work of fiction.)
Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is ultimately a book about political revolutions, though you wouldn’t really know it at first. The story opens with a brief vignette set in Albany 1936, when the main protagonist, Daniel Quinn, is an eight-year-old boy who awakens to hear the music of Bing Crosby played in his house. The thing is, the music is actually being played by Crosby downstairs on a piano, in the flesh! The opening may seem out of place, at least until you get to the end and realize that the section sets up some of the major players of the novel, but that brush with a famous person basically swings into motion a whole series of other encounters with people of note when Quinn grows up to be a successful journalist and finds himself in Havana a couple of years before Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and runs into Ernest Hemingway in a bar just days into his stay there. This sets off a series of events that will come to define Quinn, including the meeting of his future Cuban wife Renata and his involvement with a series of gun runners and those who want to overthrow the government. And, yes, the intrepid Quinn gets an interview with Castro himself.
From there, the book flash forwards to Albany 1968, on the day that Robert Kennedy was shot, and the simmering race riots that took place in the city during that time frame. The book shifts into another gear altogether in this segment and involves a plot to assassinate the city’s powerful and corrupt mayor.
As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on in Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes – and arguably too much with an epic cast of secondary characters that come and go and are barely developed, including the intervening insertion of the story of Quinn’s dead grandfather, a character telegraphed in from another Kennedy book called Quinn’s Book, published in 1988. But before launching into any criticism of the novel, you cannot deny that there are some strengths to be found here. For one, there’s a certain ba-da-bing! to much of the dialogue – in fact, large sections of the front of the novel is simply nothing but dialogue – and there’s a certain jazzy feel to it. Some of it even feels like set-ups and punch-lines to jokes with witty comebacks galore (e.g., “He seems to be a first-class criminal”, “It’s nice to meet one who isn’t in politics.”) This is actually quite apt, as music – particularly jazz and black minstrel music – plays a large part in the novel’s narrative, with snatches of song lyrics punctuating much of the action.
But the novel’s actual core power is actually in the form of a secondary character: George Quinn, Daniel’s father. He plays a role in the Albany 1968 portion of the book, but by this point he is an aging man who is suffering from a loss of his critical faculties: he can barely remember who the people around him are, and he tends to live in the past, adopting the mannerisms and memories of things that happened in his youth. And yet, Kennedy allows him to find late-in-life romance and even goes on a grand adventure that takes up the bulk of the latter part of the book, all set during the course of a single day. It’s as though, even though Kennedy was a journalist just like Daniel as a young man, he’s really possibly writing about himself in the present and the trials and tribulations of growing old. This character is easily the novel’s most fascinating, and Kennedy writes a graceful portrayal of a man who really isn’t all that together, but is allowed to have one very exciting and event-filled day.
Alas, while Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes has its share of stimulating moments and rousing political intrigue, the main problem is that it feels like two books crammed into one due to the different settings and time periods. You’d have to be a scholar of the Cuban Revolution to make much sense of the 1957 portion of the novel, as Kennedy doesn’t afford any info dumps or asides into what was happening politically at that time. There’s also an element of spiritualism present in this part, as Renata is a follower of the aforementioned Changó of the book’s title. Who is Changó? Kennedy kind of glosses it over. “Nobody will know who Changó is,” Kennedy writes at one point. “Let them find out.”
The thing is, while there’s backstory on this figure, you have to be really paying attention, which can be difficult to do when there are other thrills to be found, such as meeting Hemingway and Castro. Ultimately, you may have to figure out on your own who this guiding figure of spectral power really is, which is a particular weakness of the book. So, the novice of Cuban political and religious history might be left scratching one’s head at what exactly is going on.
Alas, there are other weaknesses, as well. Renata is a cipher as a character: she falls in love with Daniel rather quickly in Cuba and the two have a very swift marriage that takes place in a matter of days from when they first met. We really don’t get a sense in what she sees in the American, and what Daniel sees in her. And then, she’s swept aside in large part in the Albany 1968 section of the book and goes missing (both literally and figuratively) for a great deal of time.
As a hot-headed romance, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes feels half-baked. But that’s just a sampling of what’s really amiss, here. There are plot threads that are left dangling at the very end of the book, such as what is the ultimate life-or-death fate of Renata’s niece (to say anymore would ruin the final few pages of the novel), and we really don’t know what happens to a would-be assassin that Daniel is trying to protect so that he might get a really hot news story, and possibly bring down the mayor. It’s as though Kennedy is trying to cram a size 12 foot into size nine two-tone shoes (the relevance of that section of the title has to do with the shoes the would-be assassin is wearing) and in rendering his epic scope lets some major details slide off the radar.
Overall, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is a zingy read with some slow parts, but the novel comes alive in its final 100 pages or so, and I found the ending (despite it’s dropped plot thread) to be a touch on the bittersweet side. You realize in the last ten pages that you’ll miss some of these characters when the book is finally done. I suppose this novel is an attempt for Kennedy to tie up some loose ends from his earlier work.
As a send-off of sorts for Kennedy’s so-called Albany Cycle, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is an imperfect, but worthwhile read – especially more for long-time fans and those who know Albany’s political history. “You think this will make a good book?” one of the characters of this novel asks half-way through. Kennedy didn’t have to worry too much: Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is actually pretty good, warts and all. And it would have been even better if it had been split in two and made longer, with a little more character and historical detail. But, at the age Kennedy’s at, I suppose you can’t ask for too much, even if he does have a Pulitzer on his mantle.