The tall, skinny guy in the center, that’s Fidel Castro, with several of his lieutenants, in the Sierra Maestra at about the time he’d have been interviewed by the main character of William Kennedy’s latest novel, Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.
Fidel Castro is a character. Ernest Hemingway is a character. Bing Crosby makes a cameo appearance. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King aren’t exactly characters but their offstage presence is felt so keenly, painfully, and poignantly by other characters that they might as well be characters. Thinly disguised versions of Albany politicians and city movers and shakers and local celebrities that if you grew up in the area you’ll recognize pretty easily are characters. Characters from other novels by William Kennedy are characters, which is no surprise, because Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes continues Kennedy’s Albany Cycle, his series of inter-related historical novels covering over a hundred years of local and national politics and now international politics as seen through the eyes of various Quinns, Daughertys, and Phelans.
And among all these famous and glamorous and to Kennedy fans well-established and beloved characters, there's George Quinn, an elderly low-level civil servant suffering from the onset of senile dementia who starts off his part of the novel just wanting to get a check cashed so he can buy himself a beer at his favorite bar and is stymied by two inconvenient facts. The bar went out of business years ago and he doesn't have an account at the bank where he's trying to cash his check. George, it turns out, while not the main character is the most important one, thematically, that is. And it's because his memory is not what it was.
It's become something weirdly magical, like a magician’s cabinet that throws open its drawers seemingly at random but revealing something grander than the merely pertinent---the symbolically illuminating.
Here. Look at these three apparently trivial snatches of conversation. The first is between George and his son and they're talking about why the housekeeper won't be coming today to look after George. The second occurs when George bumps into an old political crony. And in the third George turns on the old charm for a long ago flame whose name keeps escaping him. In all three, George is the second one to speak.
"How are you feeling?" Quinn asked.
"I'm several flavors of excellent. How's yourself?"
"I'm tip-top but Ursula isn't coming today. She totaled her car and broke her arm. "
"Was she hurt?"
"She broke her arm."
"How did she do that?"
"She totaled her car."
"Was there much damage?"
"It was totaled."
"That doesn't sound good."
"What'd you think about Bobby Kennedy?"
"I voted for him. Patsy passed the word to cut him, but I voted for him. I'd vote for anybody named Kennedy."
"They shot him."
"Who shot him?"
"Some guy, I don't know who. But they caught him right away. He's probably a communist."
"Kennedy's not a communist."
"Get the paper, George. It's all in the paper. After midnight last night, out in L.A. He just won the primary and they shot him.”
"Who won the primary?"
"They shot him because he won the primary?"
"Just don't say it anymore, okay? You understand? Don't say it or he'll throw you out. Roy can get very excited."
"The bartender. He said his name is George, but it isn't."
"Right. He's not George, I'm George."
"You certainly are. George Quinn."
"That's me. Will you be going dancing at Beauman's this evening?"
"You're still thinking about Beauman's."
"It's right up to snuff. King Jazz's orchestra. You can't beat it. I don't recall your name."
"Vivian. Vivian Sexton, George. You know me a hundred years."
George took off his hat and held out it out to her. "It's venerable to know you so long, Vivian," he said.
"You are such a gentleman," she said.
"I would be privileged to buy you a drink, Vivian. We could sit at that table over there. I'm on my way to the Club and I have to cash a check. The clock of life is wound but once and no man has the power to tell just where the hands will stop."
"That certainly is true, George, and it's a very poetic thing to say. I'd be glad to have a drink with you. "
George placed his hat over his heart and he asked her, "Will you kiss me now or will you wait?" And Vivian kissed him on the cheek.
Notice that in each of these exchanges there’s a logic to George’s non-sequiturs. His mind isn’t wandering in the usual sense of the phrase. His thoughts are taking the scenic route. Also, his memory gets sharper and his thinking clearer as each conversation takes him deeper into the past. This is how it goes with him as the story progresses.
George's job as a character in Chango’s Beads is to remember. It’s June, 1968. Bobby Kennedy has just been shot and lies dying in a hospital in California. In Albany, as in other cities across the country, people are filling up with anger, fear, and despair at more evidence the country is coming apart. An urge to violence is spreading. In the capital of New York, the state Kennedy represents in the United States Senate and where therefore he is seen as one of their own, passions are running especially high. The city’s black citizens are already seething from the murder of Martin Luther King only a few weeks before and now the whites (still mostly Irish Catholic) have a reason to feel equally aggrieved and angry. And of course black and white are ready to take it out on one another. Caught out on the streets in a city on the brink of full scale riot, George and Vivian are dragged from flashpoint to flashpoint by a politically active priest looking to help keep a lid on the things in the poor neighborhoods he's been ministering to while trying to find a safe place to stash his two elderly babes in the woods. And as they go along, George’s memory is re-ignited by old haunts, old associations and he grows more lucid, more focused, and more talkative. In his various occupations, which include bagman for the City’s numbers racket, he went everywhere and met everyone in Albany. His array of jobs and many friendships introduced him to the rich and powerful, political, social, and criminal.
The stories bubble out of George and other characters are inspired to tell their stories to fill in the gaps in George’s memory and Kennedy’s narrative. Chango’s Beads becomes about those stories. In a way it’s not a proper novel but a collection of short and not so short stories knit together by a plot that seems to have nothing to do with many of the stories.
As their memories are jogged and the stories pour out of them. they make connections between now and way back when or they show where the connections have been broken. The past isn't past for George and his friends and through them Kennedy is making the point that it's not for us either. The implication is clear. The night Bobby Kennedy was shot is as much a part of our present as a night when he and Vivian were young and they rode a streetcar home from an amusement park or a day when Governor Al Smith sent him out to buy a newspaper or the time when George’s father, then a young journalist, interviewed President Ulysses S. Grant are a part of June 5, 1968 for George.
It’s June 1968 in Albany, New York, but it’s also March 1957 in Havana, Cuba, and another young newspaperman named Quinn has arrived on the island from Miami, looking to cover the building revolution. Fidel Castro has gathered his guerrillas in the hills for his final moves against the dictator Fulgencio Batista. But Quinn is also an aspiring novelist. We meet him as he’s wandering into the Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway's two favorite bars in Havana, looking to meet his literary idol. Which he does. He also meets a magically beautiful art student, Cuban aristocrat, and closet revolutionary, Renata Suarez. Under Papa's watchful and approving but also jealous and malicious eye, the two fall in love, although with Quinn falling faster, harder, and deeper. The problem is that Renata already loves somebody else. Or two somebody elses. Possibly three. One of those other somebodies is a rebel and the next day he helps lead an attack on Batista's palace, he and his men armed with machine guns Renata helped him smuggle into the city. The attack fails to get Batista. Renata's lover is killed. Batista’s troops go on a killing spree. Bloody violence erupts across the city. Dodging bullets, Quinn rushes to the museum where Renata works and carries her away to safety.
Not dramatic enough?
Over the next few days, they witness the assassination of one of Batista’s top henchmen in a nightclub lobby, Quinn helps Renata smuggle more guns, they get married in a Santeria ceremony---Renata believes in Voodoo. Chango, by the way, is a Santeria god, something of a trickster, and a notorious cheater of death---Quinn scores an interview with Castro, and Renata is brought in for interrogation by the police and, although the word hasn't yet been coined to describe what happens to her, disappeared.
But remember, it’s still June 1968. George and Vivian and their priest protector are still lost in the city. For company now they have a drunk and drunk addict named Tremont, the son of a locally famous jazz pianist and singer who was with Bing Crosby the night he sang in George's living room thirty-two years ago and whose farewell concert George and Vivian attended before all hell broke loose around them. Tremont is on the run from the cops, having been implicated in a plot to assassinate the mayor, set up by an FBI informer attempting to discredit the Albany version of the Black Panthers.
It gets even more convoluted.
George's son, Dan Quinn, now a forty year old reporter for the Albany Times Union is also dashing about, covering the building violence, and in the process uncovering the plot to frame Tremont. Quinn goes to the mayor to warn him there may be an attempt on his life and tell him who will really be behind it. The mayor, Alex Fitzgibbon, a smooth, refined Wasp politician who learned his trade at the knee of an old-style Irish boss, Patsy McCall (Erastus Corning and Dan O'Connell, to those of you who know Albany's political history) is the lover of Quinn's niece by marriage, Gloria, who's been staying with Quinn and his wife---yes, he found and married the enchanting Renata, but they haven’t lived all that happily ever after. Gloria is recovering after a suicide attempt brought on by her despair at Fitzgibbon's wife having discovered the affair.
Still not done, because it's 1957 again or still and we’re back in Cuba which we never really left and Quinn is interrupting his search for Renata to act as Hemingway's second in a duel with an American tourist Hemingway humiliated in the Floridita the night Quinn and Renata met and who has challenged the writer to pistols at twenty paces in a cemetery and, yes, this is comedy. The whole Albany Cycle is a comedy, in the classical sense, which means it's tragic at the same time. In Chango's Beads and the rest, history happens as tragedy and farce at the same time. Hemingway and the tourist are meeting at dawn and Renata is in prison at the mercy of her torturer and Fidel is about to complete the Revolution that will lead to the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the poisoned cigars, the scheme to make his beard fall out, and, maybe, who can say, to Bobby Kennedy sprawled on the kitchen floor in the Ambassador Hotel and George and Vivian running from Molotov Cocktails in the streets of Albany while George sings songs that were popular when he was a boy and remembers the time he bought the governor a newspaper. All that history, past and yet to unfold, is tied up in that little moment and all our seemingly little moments.
Cuba shows up in Albany, knocking on Quinn's door in the form of Max Osbourne, Gloria’s father, Renata's brother in law, who was the editor who gave Quinn his job on the newspaper in Havana and also a part time spy for the CIA and is now on the run from gangsters from whom he stole money or failed to pay back money he owed, he's cagey about which. But he has a bag full of dough, hundreds of thousands of bucks he hopes to use to buy his way back into Cuba and Fidel’s favor and if Renata helps him out and even if she doesn't a big chunk of that money is hers and Quinn's and how ‘bout they come with him?
The past and the present, tragedy and farce, one and the same, and all of it radiates out from and circles back in on George Quinn not being able to remember the name of his bank.
Hemingway is a character but he's not a Hemingwayesque character, although, being Hemingway, he tries. And Chango’s Beads is not a Hemingwayesque novel, even at its most romantic and violent. Kennedy doesn't give into any temptation to write Hemingwayese. Like his alter-ego, Daniel Quinn, Kennedy idolized Hemingway when he started out to be a writer, but he has long-since outgrown the anxieties of that influence. Kennedy knows that he doesn’t have to make any loud Hemingwayesque noises for hi readers to hear echoes in their heads of To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Islands in the Stream, although it must have taken a strong effort of will not to have Hemingway point out to Renata that she has the same first name as the heroine of Across The River And Into The Trees . I heard those echoes, but I heard louder echoes of Graham Greene---Our Man in Havana, of course, but also The Quiet American, The Comedians, and even Travels with My Aunt. Damon Ruynon’s voice reverberates too, in dialogs between George and his cronies from the old days and between Dan and his fellow reporters and his sources among the local cops. Runyon was another of Kennedy’s early literary heroes. As a kid he devoured Runyon’s syndicated newspaper columns and short stories. He’s said that Runyon used to make him laugh three times within a single sentence. But the main influence on Kennedy here is…William Kennedy.
At certain points, Chango’s Beads seems aware of itself as a novel and not just any sort of novel but a novel within the Albany Cycle. In fact, Dan Quinn has been at work on his own Albany novels which sound an awful lot like Kennedy’s, which suggests that Quinn is in the process of writing himself into existence. Kennedy is having some metafictional fun at his own expense here. My favorite example is this:
“You think this will make a good book?”
“Your friend Tex, you mean?”
“Everything that’s happening, the whole megillah. Who’d believe what’s going on right this minute? Tex, Roxy, Claudia, Roy Mason, Matt Daugherty, Bobby, riots, vigils, my wino friends, and maybe you and me thrown in for the hell of it. There’s a lot of mystery and they’re all telling me to pay attention to them.”
“Sound like a panoramic newsreel.”
“That’s not worth writing. If I can’t find a focus the hell with everybody. People like the title---The Slum Book---but they don’t like the subject. Another protest book? The woods are full of them. I see heroes but editors see winos and bums. Who wants to read about bums, especially bums in Albany?”
“They don’t know our bums.”
So fifteen years before Kennedy will publish it, Dan Quinn is writing Ironweed.
You don’t have to have read all or any of the previous novels in the Cycle---Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Ironweed, Quinn's Book, Very Old Bones, The Flaming Corsage, Roscoe---to follow Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. You can start the cycle with it or with any of the others. There’s no special order you need to follow because they’re all happening together all at once.
It’s March 1957 and Dan Quinn is climbing up into the Sierra Maestra to interview Fidel Castro and it’s June 1968 and George Quinn is having that ice cold beer he wanted and it’s November 2, 1938, All Soul’s Day, and Francis Phelan, ballplayer turned bum, is arriving at St Agnes’ Cemetery to dig graves to earn money for a place to flop for the night.