Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes ~ William Kennedy

There are three distinct sections in William Kennedy’s disappointing new novel. The first one sets up the last two, as the short section Albany, 1936 introduces a few of the recurring characters and a recurring song (“Shine”). It also introduces one of the several characters taken from real life (Bing Crosby), who is a point of reference throughout the novel.

But probably at least in part because of my recent viewing of Soy Cuba, it was the second section, Havana, March 12, 1957 that I found the most enjoyable. It was also where the reader meets other characters from real life: Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. These characters (taken from history) were the most interesting for me. I guess I like my novels with a dose of historical fiction served up. Fidel was given a fervent rendering as an idealistic, yet practical revolutionary. Hemingway also came to life in several ways in the few pages devoted to him. Only one other character tweaked my interest as much as these two, even though neither played much of a role in the novel after the pages that featured them here. The character of Renata was certainly intriguing.

Renata, the lover of an anti-Batista revolutionary who was killed, is a Cuban born of money. Kennedy writes of the aborted palace  coup, and the forces that drove such men with these words:

The force of survival is as unconsciously  fierce as the charge toward fatal heroism is willful. In the land of perpetual revolution, one never knows toward what one moves.

Renata is contrasted with her sister who seems disengaged from the politics of the day. Renata is fully committed in her political life, but in her personal life seems unable to commit to any one man easily. She readilyfalls into love with men who are drawn to her, need her. Quinn, a journalist takes her fallen lover’s place soon after his death, and they seem a good match as Quinn is nothing if not steadfast, while Renata learns the rules and pains of monogamy. Renata, aside from politics, was raised a Catholic, but was introduced to the African slave hybrid religion santeria at an early age. The Gods and the artifacts of that religion play a recurring role in Renata’s outlook. The Chango if the title is one such God.

The last section of the book – Albany, Wednesday, June 5, 1968 – is at over 200 pages, by far the longest and the least interesting. Which represents a failure of execution, since the year 1968, the year of riots and the year of (referenced) Bobby Kennedy’s assassination should have provided much more spark than I could find here. It’s been some time since I had read Kennedy. I checked it out from the library on a whim, having read or heard nothing about his new novel. It was not a good decision.

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