William Kennedy on ‘Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes’
November 29, 2011 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
Revolutionary times fuel William Kennedy’s newest book, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which follows the career of journalist Daniel Quinn. The novel’s first half takes place in 1957 Cuba, where Quinn gets writing advice from Ernest Hemingway (“Shun adverbs, strenuously”), falls in love with a gunrunner named Renata, and hikes through the jungle for the ultimate journalist’s prize—an interview with Fidel Castro. The second half finds Quinn, eleven years later, witnessing another kind of revolution, this one in his hometown of Albany after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, as the city hovers on the verge of race riots. The eighth novel in Kennedy’s Albany Cycle—which includes the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ironweed—Chango’s Beads has a cast of characters that will feel familiar to readers of the earlier books, characters united by jazz, corruption, heroics, journalism, politics, and the perpetual revolution of history. I talked with the eighty-three-year-old Kennedy at his home in Albany—a townhouse where Jack Diamond, gangster, bootlegger, and the subject of Kennedy’s second novel, Legs, was shot to death.
Is there anything unique you’ve observed about people after they go through a revolution?
It depends on why they go into it. Sometimes it’s inevitable for a whole generation. But I don’t think there’s any universal behavior. I knew a lot of guys in the Cuban Directorio, and they ranged from absolutely courageous to mezzo-mezzo. They were not that wild-headed rebel.
The oppression, it seems to me, has to be very acute before you put your life on the line, against a force like what [Fulgencio] Batista represented.
The Cuban section of the book begins with writing advice from Ernest Hemingway: “Remove the colon and semicolon keys from your typewriter.” You have referred to your own early writing as “overblown” at some points.
It used to be. I don’t think it is anymore. I cut back, way way back. If I find extra words I get rid of them.
Like your character Daniel Quinn, you’ve met Castro. What’s it like, talking with Fidel?
Well, it’s absolutely like nothing else. He showed up the first day I was in Cuba, in 1987. I was in the house of [Gabriel] García Márquez. It was after lunch, I was sitting in the rocking chair, and Gabriel—Gabo—said to me, “Would you mind moving to another chair? The Comandante is coming and he likes the rocker.” Fidel came in, in his field jacket and his cap. He was very bulky in the chest and was probably wearing a bulletproof vest.
He stuck around for about three and a half hours. We talked about literature, movies. I was about to go into production for Ironweed. He was very genial and he arranged all of my itinerary. He arranged for me to go to Santiago and then up to Holguin, to fly over to the Isle of Pines, where he had been in prison.
We also talked about making Scotch, because he had some Czechoslovakian hops and he had sent some people to Scotland to find out how to make Scotch. He made some and I promptly got a bottle and drank some.
Was it any good?
It was a very nice beverage, but it wasn’t Scotch.
In the book, Daniel is a witness, he observes, and he listens, but sometimes his role as a newspaperman feels a little futile.
I don’t think I articulated it very well when I was a young writer, but when you stop to think about why you do what you do, you constantly find new reasons. I quit journalism because I couldn’t write only of society’s daily doings. I was much more interested in what people were thinking and why they were doing things. I didn’t care to be a pundit. And I realized that if I stayed in the newspaper business forever, I would never get under the skin of anybody.
How did you become interested in Santería, the religion that [infuses this work]?
It started when Fidel suggested that I go see a place called Guanabacoa, and I did. There was a Museum of Santería there, and that planted the seed. It stuck in my head. Then I met this woman, who is the prototype for Renata. She was an anthropologist of a sort, and was a practitioner of Santería.
And then Albert Ruddy, a producer for Francis Ford Coppola, told me to go see the San Lázaro pilgrimage in December. People make this pilgrimage to San Lázaro, this rural place, ten or twenty miles out of Havana, and to Rincon. When I did it, we walked for five hours with something like 50,000 people. It was in the middle of the night. We started at ten o’clock and came home at three in the morning, and there were still thousands of people on the road. And there would be more, all through the night and all the next day and the next.
San Lázaro is the patron of the inflicted. He walks on crutches. He’s got leprous sores on his legs, and he’s got two dogs that follow him. He wears a bandage around his head and he’s got a beard. He’s a very, very popular image.
What were the sixties like in Albany? Why would you call it a revolutionary time?
The sixties were a spectacular time. I didn’t understand when it was happening, how unusual it was. The Brothers [an Albany-based civil-rights group] were coming up, and young black men were running for office. They were taking on the political machine and campaigning against the five-dollar vote and against slumlords. It was a revolution, and when I look back at it, I think it was a revolution on the order of what happened when Fidel took power. It happened very slowly here. It happened all of a sudden in Cuba.
There were also neighborhood groups raising consciousnesses about how little attention was paid to people in the slums, and how code enforcement was nonexistent. Landlords didn’t worry about codes because they were paying off the political machine and therefore they didn’t have to pay taxes. They didn’t report the property that they owned. I wrote about it and afterward there was a sudden rush for people to register their property. Suddenly they tore down forty houses in the slums. Rat infested, full of garbage.
Did you feel like you were doing real advocacy journalism at the time?
Yeah, I felt that in a way I was. Just by the nature of the subject it was a form of advocacy. This kind of journalism—on behalf of the downtrodden, the unknown, the powerless—was not widely practiced in this town.
In your journalism collection, Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, you said, “when I wanted to be a writer, I made sure to interview writers and learn from them.”
That’s exactly what I did. When I came up here from Puerto Rico, I really felt isolated, and I was teaching myself. I was connected with the The National Observer and I was also working for The Times Union and I could do anything I wanted, so I went around and interviewed every writer in range. Bernard Malamud was at Bennington, John Cheever was down in Ossining, Robert Penn Warren came to Union College. I interviewed Saul Bellow when he was publishing Herzog, I went to New York to see James Baldwin and Arthur Miller. I would just pump them—how do you do it? And why do you do this?
What advice or wisdom stands out from those interviews?
I remember talking to Bernard Malamud, who was publishing The Fixer. We got on the subject of coincidence and how he had written things about the character Yakov Bok that turned out to be true. This is what writers are all about. They are perceiving things in society, even when they don’t necessarily connect all the dots in right away. They have, sometimes, a prophetic vision of events, or insight into how things will come to pass.
William Kennedy will be appearing at the 92nd Street Y on Monday, December 5th, with Oscar Hijuelos.