WHEN A MAN is tired of London,” said Samuel Johnson, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” You could say the same about Paris, Rome, New York, or Chicago, and nobody would blink. But plug in Albany and you’ve got a laugh line. Yet William Kennedy did precisely that when, in O Albany!, he called himself “a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements a man ever needs for the life of the soul.” In the nine novels of his Albany Cycle, which now includes Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, Kennedy proves that he means it.
New York’s Capital District, which includes not only Albany but also such dark Satanic mills as Schenectady, Troy, and the tongue-twisting Watervliet, is notable for corruption, urban decay, and miniature hot dogs. It has little to offer the aesthete or the bon vivant. Its appeal is of a fundamentally masculine nature. Kennedy’s world is short on women and long on gangsters, gamblers, hobos, pool sharks, drunks, political bosses, flunkies, agitators, and risk-hungry journalists.
Changó opens in Albany, in 1936, with a boy named Daniel Quinn waking to Bing Crosby singing “Shine”—in person. Quinn, the grandson of the hero of Kennedy’s Quinn’s Book (1988), has wandered sandy-eyed into the mystery of male camaraderie. His father George, or Bing “Bingo” Crosby, and a brilliant black pianist named Cody give him an oblique lesson in racial politics:
“‘Shine’ isn’t just a song,” Cody said.
“No,” said Bing. “It’s an insult. A bad word but a great song. The song turns the insult inside out.”
After just six pages, the story jumps ahead to 1957 and Havana. Quinn, now a journalist, is about to meet his future wife Renata, on “the same night he summon[s] the courage to talk to Hemingway” at the Floridita. If you are the sort of the reader who is skeptical of a man whose imagination rarely ranges beyond Albany, you will cringe at the prospect of an encounter with Papa. Is Kennedy, now eighty-three, aware of the fact that Hemingway’s masculinity is regarded as aspirational, a drunken self-caricature? Will Kennedy go for hammy ventriloquism, or fall into the trap of taking Hemingway seriously? Kennedy’s Hemingway advises Quinn to “remove the colon and semicolon keys from your typewriter.” Yup, hammy ventriloquism. Then he punches out an obnoxious patron, who later challenges Hemingway to a delightful set piece of a duel. Hemingway proceeds to order a filet mignon and a daiquiri, and to remark that “jerks are no joke.”
Only a writer as seasoned, as conversant in masculine display, and, let’s face it, as old as Kennedy could get away with any of this. He is reminding his readers that if masculinity is, as they say, performative, that is exactly why it’s impressive: it is easy to be yourself, but it takes practice to be someone you are not. Kennedy addresses the hokiness of his old-school tough guys and the palmy, exotic setting by making it a sort of rueful tribute to itself. Sort of a nostalgia act with brains.
Quinn pursues Renata, a woman he likens to Ava Gardner, to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where Renata lectures students about “Changó, the warrior king of kings,” a Santería god. Renata, of whom Quinn rhapsodizes that “there was no garment she would not enhance if she wrapped herself in it,” considers Hemingway an ill-tempered buffoon, but takes a liking to Quinn. Thus does Quinn become entangled with the classic femme fatale, who observes exotic rites and runs guns for the enemies of the Batista regime. Quinn will find work with Renata’s brother-in-law, Max, at the Havana Post; Renata will be tortured in the wake of an assault on the Presidental Palace; Quinn will get his interview with Castro, in a scene influenced by Kennedy’s own meetings with the dictator.
The story returns to Albany, to Kennedy’s turf, after a little over one hundred pages. Robert Kennedy has just been shot in Los Angeles, and is “comatose but wide-eyed on a hotel kitchen floor, vigils for him now unfolding across the nation.” Anybody familiar with William Kennedy’s books will regard Albany as the real story, a respite from that protracted and disorienting, albeit entertaining, Cuban prologue. No more cameos from famous men, but plenty of screen time for the members of Kennedy’s old upstate gang. Though the parallels between revolutionary Cuba and Albany on the brink of a race riot may be somewhat forced, the panorama of Albany in the ’60s is expertly done.
Quinn has just dropped his father George on the front steps of the Elks Club—to be baby-sat, more or less: “George got out of the car and took two steps toward the Club, and when Danny pulled away George turned around to watch him go. He looked up and down the block for the Club, crossed State Street and walked down the hill and crossed Pearl Street.” George, needless to say, suffers from dementia, and is about to traverse Albany on a journey that is equal parts—or maybe 2 to 1—Ulysses and “Mr. Magoo.”
On the loose and firmly convinced that it is the ’30s, George is an ideal vehicle for Kennedy’s obsessions: change, memory, and the beauty and persistence of the past. George frequently breaks into song, a device that might seem heavy-handed or maudlin were it not clear how deeply Kennedy appreciates this music. Changó is a deliberately musical book, and it is after George stops for a beer that the prologue comes full circle: the bar belongs to Cody, the piano player. The man who serves George is Roy, Cody’s radical son, whom senile George mistakes for a “wonderful fella” named “Nigger Dick Hawkins.” An oblivious old man putting his foot in his mouth is the least of the racial strife about to engulf Albany.
As befits a novel named for a Santería god, Changó is a strange and often bewildering book. What it’s about depends, in large part, on who’s looking. It is a commentary on machine politics, as many of Kennedy’s books are: a scene in which poll watchers confront election fixers is among the novel’s most memorable. In both its Havana and Albany episodes, it illustrates what happens when the unstoppable force of individual conscience meets the seemingly immovable object of political power.
As a treatise on race relations, it offers paradoxes that the nation—and its binary-minded young people—would do well to contemplate. How can George, know-nothing user of racial epithets, be pals with Cody? How can “Shine,” derided and dismissed by Roy as a “coon song” and “shuffle stuff,” be seen as something almost transcendent by his father? The book ends on a cinematic note—a feel-good note—with the principals safe from the rioting, dancing the night away at the dying Cody’s farewell concert.
As Saul Bellow once wrote of Kennedy, “He could take material from skid row and write about these people as fully human as anyone else. … He wrote about them from the inside.” In Changó, Kennedy plays a vigorous variation on a shopworn theme: no man is an island. The Albany machine, with its cruel, careless trampling of human wishes, has always been the perfect foil for Kennedy’s real subject—the other machine, whose cogs are love and loyalty, friendship and community. Kennedy may be the first to admit how frequently that machine breaks down. What of it? When it’s working at full tilt, it is beautiful to behold.
Stefan Beck, a writer living in Connecticut, contributes on fiction and other subjects to The New Criterion, Barnes & Noble Review, and elsewhere.