NAVA BRAHE: As a Canadian growing up in the United States post-Cuban revolution, I’ve always had some degree of fascination with the forbidden land 90 miles off the southernmost coast of Florida. I remember standing on Mallory Pier in Key West (after visiting Hemingway’s house) at sunset about ten years ago, thinking, hell, a 90 mile swim couldn’t be that difficult…
Now, living in Canada, I revel in viewing billboards and commercials I see on television, enticing Canadians to vacation in Cuba with slogans like “Autentico!” and images of turquoise waters and white sand beaches. There is nothing illicit about Cuba in this country; when former prime minister Pierre Trudeau died in September of 2000, Fidel Castro attended his funeral. I can purchase any number of Cuban cigars at my leisure without worrying about them being deemed contraband. And, truth be told, I have smuggled my share of them into the U.S. on occasion. But, that’s our little secret.
I haven’t read that much about Cuba in my life, fiction or otherwise, and my knowledge of the country’s history is poor. But, after reading William Kennedy’s novel, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, I now know a Cuba that fascinates me on an entirely different level – one that entangles a fictional Ernest Hemingway, homegrown revolutionaries and a sprinkling of organized crime worthy of Hyman Roth, Johnny Ola and the rest of the cast of The Godfather Part II.
If you’ve never read any of William Kennedy’s novels, which I hadn’t, you might find them a bit “dry” and slow to get going; that alarmed me at first because the novel is a relatively short 326 pages. I’m somewhat used to historical fiction in the neighborhood of 5-600 pages, but surprisingly, Kennedy managed rather well within the smaller number. The story takes place during March of 1957, the beginning of the Cuban revolution, with cub reporter Danny Quinn befriending Ernest Hemingway at the famous Floridita Bar in Havana, and witnessing him get into a bar brawl with an ignorant salesman from Baltimore. The Hemingway storyline is rather minor, but it adds a distinctly romantic, American angle to the tale that someone of my generation, who never knew the allure of Pre-Castro Havana, will eat up with no questions asked. The main plot point is Danny Quinn’s romance with Renata, a seductive girl from a wealthy Cuban family he meets at the Floridita, who turns out to be one of Castro’s gun-running revolutionaries. The revolution is seen through the eyes of Danny and Renata, with them escaping back to the United States just as Castro assumes power.
The story fast-forwards to a different kind of revolution, the one that takes place in Albany, New York following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy on June 5, 1968. Danny and Renata have made a life for themselves in Albany, which is where many of Kennedy’s novels take place. The racial tension and ensuing riots that take place in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination are a different kind of revolution, also seen through the eyes of Danny and Renata. But this time, Danny is ten years older and an established reporter, and Renata has resigned herself to life as a Cuban expat. The roles are reversed as she gets to watch Danny participate in a revolution of his own.
Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is a fascinating read for anyone who loves the idea of being able to change the world. There is history in this story, but then again, there isn’t. Hemingway, Batista and Castro are secondary to the story about Danny and Renata, two young people who think their existence will be capable of changing the world. If you own a Che Guevara t-shirt, you’re not going to like this book; he’s nowhere to be found in it. This isn’t so much about the counterculture, but about trying to make one’s way in an ever-changing world. Sometimes, the best way to make peace with the fact that you can’t ignore change is to see it through the eyes of others. William Kennedy’s characters provide those eyes, along with a thoroughly enjoyable tale of how the past can shape the future.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I come to Chango as nothing less than a devotee of William Kennedy’s Albany novels. I devoured Roscoe when it published, nearly a decade ago, and I have hungered for another visit with the 20th Century’s most interesting city (Kennedy’s Albany, if not Albany itself) ever since. This newest edition did not disappoint.
Hearing Nava’s account of reading the book without the previous seven, I am gratified to know that the novel stands as-is. I’d assumed as much, with characters that interest throughout and a backdrop that is never forced, always present, both in pre-Castro Cuba and post-RFK Albany.
But the power of Kennedy’s books is that it allows us to feel as if we are visiting with old friends. Getting a final night out with George Quinn, alive and (briefly) thriving in the turbulent waters of 1968 while both his mind and his attitude recall decades earlier is nothing less than a sheer pleasure. Kennedy is writing a novel, yet we feel as if we are actually at a jazz concert- quite a feat, to make music out of merely words. The streets, alive with brutal possibilities, menace us from both the past and a fictional account of it, at that.
Kennedy is romantic yet realistic about romance, celebrating it where it can exist, and displaying brutal honesty about its limitations. It can enrapture people, but it cannot change who people are. Celebrating it as it actually lives in the world brought a realism to his fiction, from the very start of his Albany books right through Chango.
This is also a book about journalism. About stories, writing them, pitching them, why they matter. It made me feel better about my profession, and worse about not doing more to cover the things Daniel Quinn manages to capture within a few days.
But spend some time with William Kennedy. Start here if you must, or if you have the chance, start with Legs and read them all.