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Book review: 'Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes'

In his latest trip to his imaginary Albany, N.Y.-centric world, William Kennedy explores memory, conflict and redemption. It's a welcome update of some familiar family trees.

October 16, 2011|By Scott Martelle, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author William Kennedy.
Author William Kennedy. (Judy C. Sanders, Viking )

Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes

A Novel

William Kennedy

Viking: 328 pp., $26.95

Before you jump fully into William Kennedy's vibrant new novel, "Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes," it's useful to consider his lengthy literary path. Because Kennedy, 83, never just writes a novel. He sends updates from his imaginary Albany, N.Y.-centric world, and with "Changó's Beads," he's added a few welcome branches to some familiar family trees.

Kennedy's first novel was "The Ink Truck," a darkly comedic look at a bitter newspaper strike told from the perspective of a newspaperman (Kennedy began his writing career as a journalist) caught up in the drama and violence. The book was published in 1969. It really wasn't much of a novel. The heart was there, but the skills had yet to catch up.

It didn't take long for Kennedy to hit his stride, though, and in 1975, he published the first in what he calls his "Albany Cycle" of novels, "Legs." That novel told the story of the real-life gangster Legs Diamond; it set the tone and tableau for a remarkable run, including "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" (1978), the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed" (1983), "Quinn's Book" (1988) and three other works.

So now, 42 years after Kennedy began, we have "Changó's Beads," which follows another array of marginalized yet interconnected characters through three time periods, placing them and their actions against a backdrop of real events and real people.

It begins with a young Daniel Quinn (namesake grandson of the protagonist in "Quinn's Book") being awakened one evening in 1936 by singers downstairs in his father's house. The song is "Shine," an old minstrel-style jazz tune whose racial references are lost on the young boy. The singers are Bing Crosby and a black piano player named Cody.

It's a brief scene that presages a novel that will involve celebrity (Hemingway and Castro), love, the mob and race. The story quickly leaps ahead to a Havana nightclub in 1957, where Hemingway punches a tourist from Baltimore because he doesn't like his singing. In the same scene, Quinn — on a quest to reprise his grandfather's role chronicling the Cuban Ten Years' War that began in 1868 — meets the woman who will become his wife and who helps lead him to Castro for an interview (Kennedy covered the Cuban revolution as a journalist).

The third segment of the book — which accounts for more than half the novel — is set in Albany in June 1968 on the day that Robert Kennedy (no relation) was assassinated. Quinn's father, George, in whose house the novel opens, has slipped into senility. But his flashbacks of confusion as he travels around the city provide a credible device for backfilling the human geography of Albany in all its ethnic glory and political corruption. The story's also helped by myriad internal references to earlier books in the cycle; the Quinns; an appearance by Martin Daugherty, who figures in "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game," and whose father plays a pivotal role in "The Flaming Corsage," another of Kennedy's earlier novels.

And "Changó's Beads" (which refers to the protection offered by a Santería god) carries its own internal cycles. The novel that begins with Cody and Crosby singing "Shine" ends after a racially charged performance of the song by Cody, alone, transforming the piece from self-mocking minstrelsy into soul-baring jazz as the streets outside explode in racial violence.

That really is what Kennedy has been writing about all along. Memory, conflict and redemption. Love, loss and betrayal. Small lives caught up with the big ones. The tastes and tones of neighborhoods, and the human stories that do a much better job of defining place than any map ever could.

And, throughout the novel, how failure can be pursued as madly as success.

"Failure can also be a creative act, Quinn decided. One must look straight ahead as one makes the forced march backward into used history. The death of ambition, gentlemen, is a great impetus for grasping this, and soon you will thrill to how urgently you are moving, how truly exciting this quest for failure can be. What you do not know is that your quest for failure may also fail."

In the end, "Changó's Beads" doesn't close circles in the Albany cycle, though with Kennedy in his ninth decade one wonders how many more turns he might have in him. Kennedy has made art by peopling Albany's past with his imagination, so it is fitting that Kennedy himself will eventually become part of the city's past, part of a cycle of life, death and imagination rooted in the reality of place.

Martelle is the author of "The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial."

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