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Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy (review)

From: The Hemingway Review
Volume 32, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 151-153 | 10.1353/hem.2013.0011

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At the end of this novel, the eighth in his much celebrated Albany cycle, which began in 1975 with Legs (pertaining to the gangster Legs Diamond, murdered there in 1931), William Kennedy writes, “This novel is full of true stories,” but adds that he has “telescoped time and events,” and importantly, that “any real people have been reimagined.” The disclaimer is reminiscent of the one that prefaced his second Albany novel, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), which takes place at the height of the Great Depression in 1938. “There are no authentically real people in these pages,” Kennedy cautions the reader. “Any reality attaching to any character is the result of the author’s creation, or of his own interpretation of history,” and that applies to everyone in the novel, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Henry James, “and any number of other creatures of the American imagination.”

One such “creature” figuring in Kennedy’s most recent novel is Ernest Hemingway.

The opening scene takes place in 1936 and focuses on eight-year-old Danny Quinn and his father George at a party in Albany where Bing Crosby sings “Shine,” a song that sounds impossibly racist to the contemporary ear. Scraps of the lyrics recur throughout the novel, reflecting the racial theme. After a half-dozen pages the novel jumps to Havana on 12 March 1957, when journalist Daniel Quinn, born in 1928 like fellow quondam journalist William Kennedy, meets the love of his life, Renata Suárez Otero, a revolutionary connected with an “haute bourgeoisie” family and Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps Kennedy appropriates Renata’s name from Across the River and into the Trees.

Historically, on the next day (13 March 1957) some forty students will be killed in a march on President Fulgencio Batista’s presidential palace. Fidel Castro and the eighty-two men who started the 26th of July Movement had landed in Cuba from Mexico on 2 December 1956.

Hemingway plays what might be called a cameo role in the novel, mostly in the 120 pages that constitute the Cuba section, where Daniel Quinn meets up with Castro. The remaining two-thirds of the novel are set in Albany on 5 June 1968, the day that Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan. In the aftermath, racially based riots swept Albany. Quinn, now forty and married to Renata (no children), covers the rioting and attempts to look after his comically senile father George, now about eighty, and a black veteran named Tremont who has been paid to assassinate the mayor, Alex Fitzgibbon, with an AR-15. Much of the action occurs in a run-down area of the city known as “The Gut,” where gangsters and prostitutes thrive.

The Havana portion of the novel begins, “Quinn met Renata the same night he summoned the courage to talk to Hemingway.” We’re told that Quinn has visited the Floridita three nights in a row hoping to meet the man whose bronze bust stands on a shelf over the bar. Daniel Quinn is sometimes referred to as “Danny,” in part to distinguish him from his great grandfather, whose story is told in an earlier novel, Quinn’s Book (1988). Danny Quinn is “tracking” his grandfather, who wrote a book on the Cuban national hero, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, leader of the so-called Ten Years’ War (1868–1878) against Spain. He intends to write about the uprising in the Oriente mountains and in the streets of Havana. He tells Renata’s mother that he feels “fated” to have fallen in love with her daughter, who works as a gunrunner with the revolutionaries and is a follower of the Yoruba Santeria religion brought to the Caribbean by African slaves (Changó, the god of thunder, is a major deity).

When he meets Hemingway, Quinn tells him he has just quit his job with the Miami Herald in order to write a novel, and he “blames” Hemingway for that decision. The Hemingway of 1957 has won the Pulitzer for The Old Man and the Sea and the Nobel Prize, and is at work on too many projects, as time will tell: the African book that...

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