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.

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