Posted Tuesday morning, November 29, 2016.
Fidel Castro in 2005. Photo courtesy of Vandrad at the German language Wikipedia
I don’t have anything insightful to say about Fidel. I’ve never been able to sort out my thoughts and feelings. (Like it matters what I think or feel.) I’ve sometimes thought of him as a great villain, more often felt grudging admiration, the kind one feels towards a valiant and intelligent but dangerous enemy. Our policy towards Cuba has been stupid from the beginning and history will wonder what the hell we were thinking, punishing the Cuban people for sixty years because we were scared of a guy who wanted nothing so much as to be bought by us. And we could have bought him and all of Cuba in a few years just by signing a few ballplayers flat out without making them defect. (That’s a metaphor. You know what I mean.) Right Wingers have no faith in capitalism. History will also indict us for singling out Castro as the brutal dictator to despise while we were propping up dictators just as brutal all over the world. History will be particularly hard on our support of the Death Squads in Central America while we were demonizing Castro. Be that as it may. I do have one to add that are somewhat relevant. My two degrees of separation.
Whatever else he was, he was a fascinating character and about as close to Plato’s enlightened despot as anyone since Peter the Great and it would have been interesting to have sat down and talked with him. At least it was for the novelist William Kennedy. Kennedy did sit down to talk with him a couple of times, and I’ve sat down to talk with Kennedy a number of times. I took a journalism course with him and I’ve made a point of going to hear him read whenever he and I are in the same neighborhood. My brother Luke took several of his classes and they’re still in friendly correspondence. In fact, that’s how Kennedy remembers me, as Luke Mannion’s less talented brother. So…
Here’s a post I wrote in 2012 about a time I sat down to talk with Kennedy about the times he sat down to talk with Fidel.
But first he had to get Hemingway out of the way…
April 22, 2012.
Ernest Hemingway and friends in Spain around the time he was not meeting with novelist William Kennedy in Miami or anywhere else but was meeting in Havana with the hero of Kennedy’s latest novel in his Albany Cycle, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.
“I’m sick of Hemingway. We got too much Hemingway.”
Young journalist named Bill Kennedy, working for the Miami Herald in the late 1950s, wanted to do a story on Ernest Hemingway and got that response from his editor.
To be fair, the paper already had a reporter on the unofficial Hemingway beat. He was friends with Hemingway, went fishing with him, went sailing with him on his boat, the Pilar. But Hemingway was one of Kennedy’s idols and one day Kennedy had a chance to meet him---“maybe.” A call came in when he was at work, Kennedy didn’t know the caller, but whoever it was told him Hemingway was in town and at a bar on the north side of town. Kennedy called the bar.
“Is Hemingway there?”
But Kennedy figured nobody would tell him if Hemingway was there. He ran to his editor.
His editor shot him down.
“I’m sick of Hemingway. We got too much Hemingway in the paper.”
Looking back, the now eighty-four year old Pulitzer Prize winning novelist William Kennedy told a crowd gathered last night at the Kleinart/James Arts Center in Woodstock to hear him talk about his work and read from his new novel Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes as part of this year’s Woodstock Writers Festival, “I should have found an excuse to ‘go to lunch.’”
Kennedy never got to meet Hemingway and to this day kicks himself for the missed opportunity. But that meeting that never happened formed the basis of the opening of Chango’s Beads. The book begins in Albany, New York in 1936 but then quickly skips ahead twenty-one years to Havana in 1957 and a meeting in a bar between Hemingway and Kennedy’s alter ego, a young reporter who’s just quit his job at the Miami Herald, Daniel Quinn.
Like Kennedy himself did, Quinn has been covering the build up to the revolution from Miami, interviewing revolutionaries, gunrunners, smugglers and spies. But Kennedy sends Quinn to Cuba while Kennedy wound up as editor of a paper in Puerto Rico where he hired Hunter Thompson who'd recently been fired from a newspaper in upstate New York. But that's another story or three.
Quinn banters with Hemingway, talks writing and women with him, then stands aside while Hemingway punches another man for singing a song Hemingway doesn't like. One hundred pages later, with the Revolution underway, Quinn scores an interview with Fidel Castro. Kennedy never bantered with Hemingway, but he did get to talk with Fidel. Thirty years after he has Quinn doing it.
It happened at the Havana home of the Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He and Kennedy had become friends when Kennedy interviewed him in Spain shortly after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Garcia Marquez had come to Cuba to open a film school. Castro had donated an old public school building. Kennedy had just finished work on the screenplay of The Cotton Club for Francis Ford Coppola. The movie version of his novel Ironweed was about to go into production. Garcia Marquez invited him down to talk about movies with the students at the school.
So there's Kennedy in Havana, sitting in a rocking chair in Garcia Marquez' house when the phone rings. When GM returns from answering it he tells Kennedy they're going to have a visitor. He also tells Kennedy he'll have to find another place to sit.
"The Comandante likes the rocking chair."
A little while later Castro is occupying the rocking chair.
He occupies it for the next three and a half hours. He and the two writers talk movies and books while the platoon of soldiers acting as the Comandante's body guard amuse themselves in the back yard. Castro wears his field jacket buttoned up to his neck the whole time, Kennedy surmising a bulletproof vest underneath. Castro speaks Spanish but he understands Kennedy's English well enough to correct the translator at several points in the conversation. Fidel tells Kennedy he owns copies of Kennedy's novels, the three translated into Spanish at the time, Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Ironweed. He promises Kennedy he’s looking forward to reading them.
"Do you know if he ever read them?" Kennedy was asked.
Kennedy feigned annoyance at the questioner's impatience. "That's part two of the story."
Here’s Part Two.
Some while down the road, Kennedy met with Castro again. By this time, Castro had read the three books. He liked Ironweed and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game but not Legs because it was about a gangster. Castro didn't enjoy reading about gangsters, which Kennedy finds ironic but understandable. As a college student, Fidel had been something of a gangster himself.
The other two books, though, Castro thought very good. He especially liked the main character of Ironweed. He thought Francis Phelan was a fascinating character, worth another book, and urged Kennedy to write about him again. Very Old Bones isn't dedicated to the Comandante but maybe it should be.
As for Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, what was on Castro's mind was Billy Phelan's greatest game. Castro was an avid bowler. In the novel, Billy bowls a 299. Castro asked how he pulled that off. He confided to Kennedy that his own high game was 169.
Billy Phelan was based on Kennedy’s uncle, a gambler and pool hustler, who once really did bowl a 299. For that matter, Kennedy himself once really did bowl a 299. He rolled eleven straight strikes but on his last roll he left one pin standing.
“The number 4 pin never moved. It was like it was cemented there. Never even wobbled.”
When Kennedy told him about that, Castro sat there in silence for a few long seconds then changed the subject.
To duck hunting.
Castro liked to hunt ducks.
On one outing he killed 102 ducks.
With 99 shots.
The Comandante seemed confident Kennedy would understand that that beat bowling a 299.
The important thing, though, is that Castro read and admired Kennedy’s novels.
As far as Kennedy knows, that’s more than any American President has done.
“Elmore Leonard, that guy who writes the James Bond books?” Them they’ve read. “William Kennedy?” Kennedy pulled a long face and shook his head. Then, his eyes lighting up with mischief, he added, “But I’m very big in Havana.”
Back to the present: Next time I sit down to talk with Kennedy, I’ll have to ask him if he’s heard if Castro got around to reading Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. I think he’d have liked it. But I wonder what he’d have made of Kennedy’s portrayal of him as a young revolutionary. i think you’d like it. You can let me know what you make of Kennedy’s portrayal of Castro. I’ve posted my review below. “All of history summed up in an uncashed check.” Scroll down or click on the link if you’d like to read it.