three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
user_rating: 
0

A-Changos BeadsChangó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is William Kennedy's eighth novel in the Albany Cycle, which covers more than a century of Albany's history as it follows different families in the politically corrupt New York State capital. The series began in 1975 with Legs; it includes Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ironweed (1983), Quinn's Book (1988), and Roscoe (2002), among others.

The Story: Daniel Quinn, grandson of the narrator of Quinn's Book, starts his adventure in 1957 in revolutionary Cuba, where he is covering Fidel Castro's attacks on the Batistas. Three personalities--Ernest Hemingway; Renata, a beautiful, aristocratic Cuban woman and secret gunrunner for Castro's insurgency; and Castro himself--play large roles in shaping Daniel and his crusading beliefs. A decade later, a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Daniel, now a journalist in Albany, New York, is covering the civil rights movement. Living with Renata and his senile father, a former numbers runner for the Irish mob, he hears of a conspiracy to kill the mayor. But that is just one thread in this latest installment of the Albany cycle, which travels from the nightclubs of Cuba to the racially polarized streets of Albany in its exploration of romance, racism, revolution, and the lasting corruption of the state's political machine.
Viking. 336 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780670022977

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[It] is his most musical work of fiction: a polyrhythmic contemplation of time and its effects on passion set in three different eras, a jazz piece unafraid to luxuriate in its roots as blues or popular ballad or to spin out into less melodic territory. ... Kennedy's time scheme allows him to quit a sequence with a lot of business left hanging, teasing us, leading us through other events with other characters so that plot points mean much more when finally resolved." John Sayles

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is written with such brio and encompassing humanity that it may well deserve to be called the best of the bunch [of the Albany Cycle]. ... Mr. Kennedy's heroes are those who, like the author, recognize their own fates in the fates of their ancestors." Sam Sacks

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the end, Changó's Beads doesn't close circles in the Albany cycle, though with Kennedy in his ninth decade one wonders how many more turns he might have in him. Kennedy has made art by peopling Albany's past with his imagination, so it is fitting that Kennedy himself will eventually become part of the city's past, part of a cycle of life, death and imagination rooted in the reality of place." Scott Martelle

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It's an attempt to juxtapose Castro's revolution with the civil rights movement of 1960s United States. Linking them was inspired. Treating them with equal command was harder. But even when Kennedy falters--keeping track of everyone's relationships is challenging--his language, by turns terse as Hemingway's and wild as Joyce's, startles and pleases." Carlo Wolff

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It's best read for its jazzy writing rather than its crowded plot, which at times becomes hard to follow. ... Readers of Kennedy's earlier novels will feel as if they've stumbled into a raucous family reunion." Bob Minzesheimer

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, like all its predecessors, is vivid and charming, but it also borders on the chaotic. ... The more considerable difficulty with Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is that there's simply too much going on and it doesn't always make a great deal of sense." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is a worthy addition to the Albany Cycle, if not, perhaps, one of the best in it. At age 83, Kennedy is as insightful as ever into the "perpetual return"--what Daniel describes as the never-ending revolt against injustice, and injustice's faithful return--that marks the Albany Cycle. The novel, "brawling with energy" (Oregonian), gives the sense "of somebody who has seen and considered much, without letting his inner fire cool" (New York Times Book Review). But in juxtaposing Castro's revolution with America's 1960s civil rights movement, Kennedy may have bitten off more than he can chew. Though both sections are both historically, richly imagined, the novel often feels crowded with characters, relationships, and stories-within-stories. Whether it is "a relatively minor episode in the Albany Cycle" (Washington Post) or "the best of the bunch" (Wall Street Journal) remains to be seen.