Newark Star-Ledger, August 30, 2011
In his riveting new novel, “Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes” (Viking, $26.95, 328 pp.), the great American novelist William Kennedy covers the Cuban revolution in the 1950s and the race riots of Albany, N.Y., in 1968, as seen through the eyes of a young reporter named Daniel Quinn.
Quinn goes to Cuba just in time for the 1957 suicidal assault on the Presidential Palace in Havana, where dozens of students are slaughtered. He falls in love with the mysterious Renata, who runs guns for the rebels and practices Santeria. Eleven years later, Quinn is back in his hometown of Albany. Bobby Kennedy has been shot, a riot is ripping the city apart, he has to defuse a plot to assassinate the mayor and his memory-compromised elderly father has gone missing. Along the way, Kennedy showcases his brilliant ear for dialogue, the comic intricacies of corrupt Albany politics and America’s deep troubles over race.
Kennedy, 83, won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for his classic novel “Ironweed.” He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a hotel in New York City.
Q. Have you wanted to write a novel about Cuba for a long time?
A. I’ve been thinking about Cuba for more than half a century. The first time I covered the Cuban revolution was in 1957 for the Miami Herald, when I was 29. Cuba was the target destination for sex, for great exotic pleasure, for beaches and tropical paradises and the great Cuban culture. It was on the verge of becoming the greatest mob-run gambling resort in the world. Fidel Castro put an end to that.
When I got there, Fidel was in the mountains and another rebel group had attacked the Presidential Palace. The killing of the revolutionary students afterward was the most outrageous. There was great repression by (the Cuban dictator Fulgencio) Batista. They were killing casual enemies, anyone in the opposition.
Q. Quinn interviews Fidel Castro and helps Ernest Hemingway in a duel. Did you really meet both men?
A. I met Fidel several times, but I never met Hemingway. Hemingway did punch a lot of people out and did have a duel in Cuba. Some of the stories in the novel are true, but Hemingway was a fictional character. I shaped him to my needs.
Q. In one horrific torture scene, a doomed Cuban rebel is saved by her Santeria necklace. What drew you to integrating this mystical faith in the book?
A. When I was in Cuba in 2001, I went on the San Lazaro pilgrimage. There were 50,000 people on the road, people crawling, people dragging large rocks that were chained to their legs. I had to write about this experience.
Q. The novel moves from 1957 Havana to 1968 Albany, where the city is about to burn because of a race riot. Why did you write about Albany?
A. I covered the racial tension of the civil rights movement in Albany from 1964 to 1969. That was in my imagination. A lot of people have written about 1968, so it is an overused year, but I don’t care. I really wanted to use Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. I telescoped five years of events to a 12-hour period on one night.
When I began to use this period, I realized that I wanted to write about my father. A lot of things with my father had racial overtones.
Having written so much about black and Irish history and knowing where they intertwine, I wanted to make this happen again in this book. It worked perfectly.
Q. Was it difficult to write the riot scene?
A. I remember talking to a lot of cops about earlier race riots. There were a lot of swinging clubs and Molotov cocktails thrown.
You could say that writing the scene was difficult because it took me a long time, but then it began to flow. One event led to another.