Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes
This is the eighth novel in prolific American author William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle, which began way back in 1975 with Legs. Often compared to James Joyce’s portrayal of Dublin, Kennedy’s intricate details of his hometown in New York State make the place so familiar to the reader that it is as if you could open your front door and step straight out onto them.
However, with a brief prologue featuring Bing Crosby in 1935, over half of this book is set on the mean streets of Havana during 1957 when Batista ruled with a corrupt fist, rebels were a revolution away from taking over, and Ernest Hemingway was propping up the bars. The main character here is Daniel Quinn, a young American journalist in search of a story, in search of history and in search of love. At first he thinks Hemingway may hold the answer, but it is his instant attraction to the Cuban beauty Renata that is to shape his destiny, one that leads from passion to gun-running, pagan marriage and sharing a cigar with Fidel Castro.
It’s a beautiful, even poetic, novel at times, extremely well-drawn and utterly captivating, even when halfway through the action frustratingly jumps 10 years to Albany in 1968 and follows a seemingly disjointed series of events on the eve when Bobby Kennedy was shot and the town was set to explode in racial violence. But somehow it all works and comes together for a powerful finale, not to mention some wonderful jazz and, of course, two-tone shoes that can’t half dance.