what i'm reading: chango's beads and two-tone shoes (and maybe more, again) by william kennedy

I am reading Changó's Beads and Two-tone Shoes, the latest novel by William Kennedy, one of my very favourite authors, and in my opinion, one of the greatest English-language writers of our time. Changó's Beads is Kennedy's first novel in several years, and after not reading him for so long, his work is a bracing shock of beauty and possibility.

I've read all of Kennedy's fiction - Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Ironweed, Quinn's Book, Very Old Bones, The Flaming Corsage, and Roscoe - and loved each one, each book very different, but all linked and related to one another. I've also seen him read a couple of times, and although audiences tend to fixate on his political savvy, it's Kennedy's understanding and articulation of the human heart, and his intricate weaves of events, that win my admiration.

Ironweed put Kennedy on the literary map, but his story might have been very different. His two earlier novels were ignored, and Kennedy's publishers were about to dump him. The late Nobel laureate Saul Bellow somehow got the Ironweed manuscript; he encouraged Kennedy to keep writing, and he went to bat for the book. Ironweed went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, but more importantly for us, Kennedy continued to write.

Changó's Beads and Two-tone Shoes takes you from Cuba on the brink of revolution, to Albany on the brink of riots, through several generations of Quinns and Suarezes, through Hemingway and Castro and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, through yet another side of Albany (and America) that Kennedy can escort you through. A marriage ceremony performed by Santeria dancers, a newspaperman's quest to witness a revolution, a city's ancient political machine - the old world - seen through its victims' eyes, the new world. Changó's Beads is all these things, but it's not written as an epic. Kennedy always brings you close-in, on the ground, into the heart of the confusion - the love, the desire, the loneliness - that drives the human condition.

I seldom re-read books, as there are far, far too many that I want to read and will never get to. But there are a handful of books that I have read two or three times each: 1984, which everyone should read once every ten years, The Grapes of Wrath, which I've read three times and will probably read again one day, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which holds a kind of magic for me. I read Kennedy's novels so long ago, and can't remember them clearly. So now I'm considering re-reading them all, in order.

Meanwhile, this book has me in a kind of trance. Here, Daniel Quinn, grandson of Daniel Quinn of Quinn's Book, has gained an audience with Fidel Castro, the elusive and charismatic leader of the revolutionaries. Quinn has trekked through the jungle and risked death to meet with Castro, supposedly to write a newspaper article about him, but knowing that his own reasons are more complex, but not fully understanding them himself.
He's not doing it because he thinks he's a coward, or because of a personality disorder, or a love affair with war such as Hemingway has had. 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, and he will write about that, which seems his primary motive. He has a strong impulse to salvage history, which is so fragile, so prismatic, so easily twisted, so often lost and forgotten. Right now a full moon is rising on the revolution, rising on a day like none other and, if Quinn doesn't report on it, who will? It will fade into the memory bank of those here, and if they survive they'll tell what they remember, fragments of the actuality which they'll skew with their prejudices (and so will you, Señor Quinn). Yet monitoring the whatness of the previous unknown, that seems to be Quinn's job: I was there and then he said this, then this happened, and then they went that way - following the path of the machete, you might say.

Why bother?

Well, Quinn is young and his motives may be more opaque that they seem, but he has no interest in gaining power for himself. He's fascinated by those who want to transform the day, the town, the nation for other than venal or megalomaniacal reasons. Is working for the just cause one of his motives? It seems to be on his agenda. He intuits that it's worth his time to bear witness to people living for something they think is worth dying for. He also has another reason: he wants to escalate himself in his grandfather's dead eyes.


laura k said...

Later Quinn will have an audience with the mayor of the fair city of Albany.

Quinn had been watching Alex Fitzgibbon behave for three decades. Supremely articulate, expensively educated, immensely charming, he epitomized the suave politician for whom no hostile question would ever pose a problem. The answer, whatever the question, was that there is no ready answer, the situation is too complex, quite ambiguous, a matter of opinion, not what we expected, in need of study, can't comment since it's under investigation, sorry but I don't have that answer, try again tomorrow. In the early 1940s his equivocal style was the understandable caution of a novice mayor, but he quickly shed the novitiate and raised vaporous improvisation to an elocutionary art form - graceful verbal effusion, devoid of specificity or meaning. I will tell you what I choose to tell you and nothing beyond.

Why, then, didn't Quinn talk to the police chief or the district attorney about the crisis in the city? Because
only the Mayor was permitted to have a public thought.

Amy said...

I have heard of Ironweed, but never read it or any of the other books he has written. But given your recommendation, I would like to read something he wrote. Do you have a specific recommendation as to what book to read first? It seems they are somewhat interrelated, so should I start with the first one written?

laura k said...

They are interrelated, but not linearly. Each book takes place in a different time or times, and with different branches of the family tree. And some books are written in totally different styles. So it's hard to know what to recommend!

I loved Ironweed, adored it. It's a short read, not a huge time investment. I also highly recommend Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, another short masterpiece. Then if you like either or both of those, you might be hooked.

Amy said...

Thanks, Laura. I guess I will start with Ironweed.

laura k said...

This book - Chango's Beads - is great. It's very different than Ironweed. I highly recommend it.

laura k said...

Decision: I am going to re-read all of Kennedy's novels in order of publication. Yay.