daniel Quinn, the main character of William Kennedy's new novel, meets Bing Crosby and Ernest Hemingway before Page 10.
But name-checking the famous isn't the impetus at the heart of Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. The book is a virtuoso improvisation upon music and memory, revolution and race and romance, terrible loss and enduring love.
This is the eighth novel (and the first in nine years) in Kennedy's epic Albany Cycle, the third of which, Ironweed, won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. Taken together, they're a palpable portrait of Kennedy's hometown, the state capital of New York, over the span of a century. Peopled with politicians, priests and gangsters, bums and swells, they vividly evoke all the city's connections and corruption.
Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes opens briefly in Albany in 1936, when Quinn is a little boy awakened by the irresistible sound of Crosby singing in his family's parlor, accompanied by a local jazz piano player, Cody Mason. But almost immediately Kennedy launches him a couple of decades forward, to Havana in 1957. Quinn (as Kennedy himself was at the time) is a newspaper reporter chasing an interview with Fidel Castro, who is fighting a guerrilla war against the dictator Fulgencio Batista. When a friend points out the New York Times has just published an interview, Quinn says, "Fidel can't have too many interviews. Batista's army kills him every day in the papers. He has to keep proving he's alive."
Quinn is also haunting El Floridita, Hemingway's favorite bar, in hopes of meeting the great man, then at the height of his fame. He finally connects, just in time to see Hemingway take umbrage at a performance by a crass American tourist:
" 'We'll have him sing it again and at the finish I'll throw him a right and cross with a left.'
" 'You're a harsh critic,' Quinn said. 'Maybe we should just temper our applause.' "
It's the beginning of a beautiful (if brief) friendship based on such snappy patter, but it's not the most important connection Quinn makes that night. Also at El Floridita is the "spectacularly beautiful" Renata Suárez Otero, whom Quinn promises to marry virtually at first sight.
Renata is the daughter of a vastly wealthy family, an art history student, an insatiable lover of men and a gunrunning revolutionary. Just after she and Quinn meet, one of her lovers is killed in an assassination attempt on Batista, and Quinn spends a breathless couple of days on the run with her, as Kennedy vividly depicts a city rocked by revolution. They are indeed married in a matter of days, in a Santeria ceremony evoked in the book's title: Changó is a leading Santeria deity, "a warrior who helps people in trouble. I am in trouble," Renata says.
Quinn leaves the ceremony directly for Castro's mountain camp. He gets his interview but returns to find Renata has vanished, and he must turn to her friends — maybe gangsters, maybe revolutionaries, maybe spies — to find her.
Kennedy leaves that mystery open as he rockets us up to Albany in 1968. Quinn is still a journalist, still married, although fractiously, to Renata, who is still dangerously beautiful, and chaos once again threatens.
It is June 5, the day Robert Kennedy was shot. Hit by three bullets just after midnight, he lingered until the morning of June 6, and the shadow of that terrible wait — coming just two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — hovers over the entire second section of the book as Albany, like many other American cities that summer, boils into racial violence.
The intricately structured second part of the book takes place on this single day. As Quinn moves around the city, pursuing various stories and people, so does his father, George, who is suffering from dementia but finds his memory sparked perhaps by running into a still-attractive old flame, perhaps by being bonked in the head during a street brawl.
Their perambulations set the stage for tales of Albany's past and present that introduce a huge and diverse cast, black and white, young and old, powerful and pitiful. It's a little like Leopold Bloom's walkabout of Dublin in Ulysses, if James Joyce had set it during the Easter Rising of 1916: a city's history compressed into a single explosive day.
Will Quinn and his father make it to a farewell performance by Cody Mason, that piano player from long ago? Is a down-on-his-luck black man named Tremont Van Ort a radical, a dupe or maybe an incarnation of Changó? Will Renata's past ever loosen its grip? And will Quinn's editor run his hard-hitting story of the day's events?
As it turns out, Tremont's part of that story is cut (that old Albany power structure strikes again), even though Quinn's editor admires the writing and tells him he'll "find a way to put Tremont on the page one of these days."
Kennedy writes, "Markson was right about Quinn putting Tremont on the page, but it would take Quinn forty years to do it — in a novel, where he would also write Hemingway's duel and Renata's disappearance into a silence nobody could cut."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.