Dance to the music of 'Chango's Beads'
Share with others:
The dependably fine novelist William Kennedy goes far south in the latest installment of his Albany cycle, gluing an imaginative take on the early days of the Cuban revolution to a complex yarn about his long-time inspiration, the politics of the New York state capital, his hometown.
"Chango's Beads" evokes the Santeria-infused marriage of reporter hero and Kennedy surrogate Daniel Quinn and guerilla beauty queen Renata Otero, an haute bourgeoise with a secret life as a gunrunner for Castro's insurgency. "Two-tone shoes" are the sartorial choice of Tremont Van Ort, an alcoholic black and accidental revolutionary who magically quells a race riot in Albany in 1968 as Bobby Kennedy lies dying.
The first 120 pages play mainly in Cuba and feature Bing Crosby, Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro, along with various fictional figures. The other 200-plus play primarily in Albany and are less fantastic if no less imaginative. Certainly the dialogue in the latter is more credible; when Quinn finally interviews Fidel, the exchange is particularly stilted. But when Quinn's senile, high-stepping father, George, gets to talking, the language flows natural as breath. Kennedy always does Albany proud: His great trilogy -- "Legs," "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" and 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winner, "Ironweed" -- made that tight little city as "literary" as Joyce's Dublin and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
While the book lacks balance, it's still very good. It's an attempt to juxtapose Castro's revolution with the civil rights movement of 1960s United States. Linking them was inspired. Treating them with equal command was harder. But even when Kennedy falters -- keeping track of everyone's relationships is challenging -- his language, by turns terse as Hemingway's and wild as Joyce's, startles and pleases. Like "Shine," the "coon song" that binds characters as disparate as Crosby, the dying pianist Cody Mason and Quinn's addled father, "Chango's Beads" is musical. Here's Cody, then going as Sonny, working at Jerry's club in Harlem:
"Jerry said to him, all right, fourteen bucks a week five nights and you also play when the girls dance (you know those girls), five of them moving among the tables (you know how they move) and share their tips. So Sonny kept suspense in the tune; and when somebody put folding money on the table and a girl picked it up with her between and kept it, Sonny gave her achievement a little arpeggio."
Mr. Kennedy's grasp of history is intuitive, his apprehension of racism subtle. At its core, "Chango's Beads" is about shading, be that in history or complexion. It's also about the line between fact and fiction. When Quinn nails down the Albany machine's conspiratorial attempt to discredit a grass-roots anti-poverty movement, his editor at the Albany Times-Union (where Kennedy worked for a time) quashes the story for political reasons. And Quinn turns, much as Mr. Kennedy himself did years ago, from fact:
"Quinn decided he was again a failed witness to history, Tremont's story as lost as Fidel's, for history conspired against both stories. The medium -- that so-called first draft of history -- proved to be not the message but the anti-message. Quinn, always aware of these limitations, had finally decided he was furious with himself for believing he could work beneath the strictures, write what would not be countermanded, reveal history in language graceful but hip, simple but sly, exfoliating with the essential stories he had tracked down and wanted to tell to the world. Right."
"Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes" proves history's loss can be fiction's gain.
First Published October 23, 2011 12:00 am