Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes

  • William Kennedy
  • Viking
  • 336 pp.
  • November 9, 2011

A tale of love and danger amid political turmoil in Cuba is interwoven with a nostalgic journey through the streets of 1950s Albany.

Reviewed by Patricia Griffith

William Kennedy’s Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes begins in 1936 in Albany with two men carrying a piano into the Quinn home, where Bing Crosby is singing “Just because my hair is curly…”  as Billie Holiday’s pianist Cody Mason plays. Daniel Quinn, a young boy at the time, is awakened by the sound of his father entertaining a group of men, including Crosby, who drink whiskey and talk about “beautiful women and fast horses.” The young Quinn is charmed by the mens’ attention and by the music. That brief scene sets the stage for a later return to Albany and the raucous world of political intrigue and racial strife of the 1950s.

The next section of Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is set in March of 1957 in Havana where Quinn, now a young journalist, meets the woman who will become his great love, Renata Suarez Otero. A beautiful, wealthy and sought-after socialite, Renata is running guns and raising money for Fidel Castro’s incipient revolution. Quinn is immediately smitten with Renata and she responds:

“I am fond of you. Instantly. Anoche. You have a manner. You seem to be different.” “From your lovers?” “Yes. I think so. You have a way. How you look at a woman. It is possible I could marry you some day, but it is too soon to know.”
The same night that Quinn meets Renata in the El Floridita Bar, he also encounters Ernest Hemingway and witnesses him deck a guy who sings a dopey song and fails to recognize the writer. Later, Quinn accompanies Hemingway to a duel with the aggrieved man, whereupon Hemingway, in a change of attitude, makes a gallant and charming gesture after he’s explained the attack by saying his dog died.

The Cuban culture permeates Kennedy’s melodic language, enriched by the religious mysticism of Cuba, which also plays a strong role in the novel. At the same time, Kennedy manages to vividly render the atmosphere of tension and corruption of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batistia as well as the early excitement of the Castro revolutionaries who are, at this point, still mostly in the hills.

Quinn, who had already written articles about Cubans for the Miami Herald, goes to the Havana Post. Partly due to his acquaintance with  Hemingway, he wrangles an assignment to interview Castro.

“Why are you in Havana?” the editor asks Quinn. “It’s closer than Paris,” Quinn says. “I followed my nose, and it led here. I thought Miami would be exotic but it’s pointless. Havana has a point. In Albany they merely steal elections. Here they put a pistol in the president’s ear while they show him the door.” “I know Albany. It had very entertaining corruption, and it was wide open, like Havana.”
When Castro’s supporters attack on Batista is foiled and becomes a massacre, one of Renata’s lovers is killed and she herself becomes endangered. We discover later in the novel that she is captured by Batista’s men and tortured. But Quinn’s first-person narrative of death at the palace and death on a hotel balcony would be carried internationally with his byline by the Associated Press, and Time would hire him as a stringer.

Soon Renata agrees to marry Quinn, and as a means to interview Castro they decide to be married at Castro’s retreat. Quinn does meet and smoke cigars with Castro. When Quinn asks Castro what makes a man a revolutionary, Castro replies that it’s “the passionate embrace of the vocation and the obsession with changing the order of existence.”

The title of Kennedy’s novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, indicates that this novel is really two stories, one set in Havana in 1957 and the other beginning in Albany on June 5, 1968, the day Robert Kennedy is shot as he is campaigning for president in California. After Renata is forced to flee Cuba, she and Quinn settle in Albany, marry but not without tension, and Quinn is still a reporter covering what seems to be the eternal political machinations of Albany.

His father, George, who’d been downstairs entertaining Bing in 1936, is the central character of the Albany section of the book. George Quinn, elderly and a tad senile, and living with his son Quinn and his daughter-in-law, sets off to his Elks Club but instead wanders off about the city. The rest of the book is something of a paean to the streets, bars and back alleys of Albany where George encounters many of the rich, colorful characters for which William Kennedy’s novels are known. During this day George, a widower, encounters an old love and is wounded in a street fight that is eventually part of a race riot in response to the Robert Kennedy assassination.  When Quinn catches up with his father, George is in a ballroom waltzing with his old love, and an aged and ailing Cody Mason is once again playing the piano as he had in the first scene of the book.

In an acknowledgement at the end of the book, William Kennedy states that the novel is full of true stories of both revolutions, meaning the Cuban and our own civil-rights revolution. Of course, if true stories were not permitted in novels there would be fewer novels and fewer wonderful stories. Most novels are, of course, an amalgam of truth and imagination, the great compost with which writers work. The rich, layered and fond presentation of the city of Albany is one of the great aspects of this book as is his lyrical rendering of Cuba. And Kennedy’s description of the race riot is masterly. Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is an epic narrative of a certain time and place in both Cuba and Albany. It’s a pleasurable journey. I hope it won’t be our last.

Patricia Griffith is a novelist and playwright who teaches at George Washington University. Her third novel, The World Around Midnight, was named one of the outstanding books of the year by the American Library Association.

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