Bearing witness to the struggle; a book review

Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes
by William Kennedy (Viking)
reviewed by Peter G. Pollak

If you’re not convinced that journalists are romantics, you will be after reading William Kennedy’s latest novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes. Daniel Quinn, a native of mid-century Albany New York, when gangsters were folk heroes and politicians were gangsters, goes to Cuba to write about “battles and heroes and villains.” In those days journalists were not supposed to take sides, not because it undermined their objectivity–a journalism school construct that never existed in the real world, but rather to take sides was to become corrupted by those who one was supposed to write about. Quinn throws caution to the wind and follows his grandfather’s path as chronicler of revolution.

Quinn hasn’t been in Havana for a week before he falls in love (at first sight) with a woman up to her eyebrows in the revolution against the Batista regime. He doesn’t stop to think that falling in love with Renata Suarez Otero will make him a participant–not just an observer, nor does he foresee the price he’ll pay. When Renata’s mother asks him why he wants to write about war, he replies it’s “to keep myself from boredom.” From that point on there’s very little boredom or dispassionate objectivity in Quinn’s life.

The two halves of Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes meld together Quinn’s adventure in Cuba with his life 11 years later back in Albany. It mirrors Bill Kennedy’s own path, which took him from Albany to Miami to the Caribbean and back to Albany. In an interview with Joe Donohue on WAMC’s Book Show, Kennedy admits Quinn is one of his favorite characters. One might say that Quinn, who like Kennedy was born in 1928, is Kennedy’s stand-in–although he gets to interview Ernest Hemingway, something Kennedy missed the chance to do in real life.

In Chango’s Beads Kennedy recounts Cuba’s history of revolutions from the 19th anti-slavery rebellions that led to the abolishment of slavery 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation to the rebellion against Batista. Kennedy makes Castro out to be a sympathetic figure, without endorsing the regime that followed. Instead he exposes the corruption and ruthlessness of Batista and the heroism of the rebels.

Quinn’s pursuit of Renata, whom he marries but then loses temporarily in circumstances that are not detailed until the end, drives the first half of the novel. She exposes Quinn to Cuba’s multi-ethnic culture and to Santeria, the syncretic religion that derived from Yoruba culture in Africa. Chango is the warrior king of kings whose story appeals to Quinn and whose influence saves Renata’s life.

When Quinn gets to interview Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra, Kennedy contrasts Quinn to Papa Hemingway, whose appearance in the novel helps clarify Quinn’s chosen path. “Papa always went to war for the macho thing–drink and fuck and fish and hunt and fight and kill and put yourself in mortal danger and prove your courage and be a hero of the just cause. Quinn is going through a little of this in the here-and-now…But it isn’t simple emulation by Quinn …[h]e’s not doing it because he thinks he’s a coward, or because of a personality disorder, or a love affair with war…He’s doing it because it’s a continuation of an earlier life choice: to be a witness, a writer, something to do while he’s dying that isn’t boring…”

Quinn is not interested in personal power: “He intuits that it’s worth his time to bear witness to people living for something they think is worth dying for.”

That’s Quinn’s role in the Albany (Two-Toned Shoes) portion of the novel, as he bears witness to the civil rights movement as it manifested itself in a city thoroughly dominated by an Irish political machine.

Two-Tone Shoes, which takes place on June 5, 1968, is told through four characters: Tremont Van Ort, whose life mirrors the evolution of the black community from the days of booze, jazz and whore houses to the civil rights era, Roy Mason, the leader of The Brothers and son of Cody Mason–the jazz pianist who appears in the opening chapter when Daniel was 8, Gloria Osborne, Renata’s niece, who is sent to live in Albany when Cuba is no longer safe, and George Quinn, Daniel’s father whose day parallels Tremont’s in that both skate on the edge of death and come away unscathed.

Tremont’s unpremeditated actions, aided and abetted by Quinn and the radical priest Matt Dougherty, help quell a riot in the aftermath of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. In fact, Molotov cocktails were thrown at blacks in Albany in those days and whites who ventured into Albany’s black neighborhoods were in danger of being assaulted, as I can personally testify.

The plot of an agent provocateur propels the Two-Tone Shoes section of the book. Trement, a wino who has ties to the Brothers, has been given money and a gun to assassinate the mayor of Albany. Instead, he is one of the day’s heroes.

In Cuba, the July 26th Movement led by Fidel Castro was victorious, but what followed was a half a century of dictatorial rule. In Albany, rebellion took a different path. The Brothers, a local Albany civil rights group, resisted (for the most part) the calls to violence issued by Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers. As a result, they too had to contend with provocateurs on top of constant harassment from police and the Democratic political machine. Their leadership and courage helped change Albany forever. One of those to whom Kennedy dedicated Chango’s Beads–Leon Van Dyke, the Brother’s founder and coordinator–was as much a revolutionary in the American context as Castro was in Cuba’s.

Throughout the second half of the novel Kennedy gives us hints at troubles in Daniel Quinn’s marriage. How did Renata survive after she was picked up by Batista’s thugs and how were she and Quinn reunited? Learning that part of the story reminds us of Quinn’s decision to live a life that was not boring and to bear witness to those who put their lives on the line for change.

While one need not have read any of Kennedy’s prior Albany novels, having done so increases the reader’s appreciation of Kennedy’s body of work, as characters and places and even book titles crop up from works such as Roscoe (2002), Very Old Bones (1992) and Ironweed (1979). Bill Kennedy’s Albany serves up plenty of flawed characters, from winos who find stoops to sleep on to old men whose memories hang on a thread. But those characters are never boring and thank goodness we have someone who not only bears witness to their humanity, but who also reminds us that we too are capable of loyalty, friendship and heroic deeds.

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