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Kennedy's latest Albany novel adds spice with Cuban setting

The Albany of his memory has proven to be fertile ground for author William Kennedy. But some exotic fruit has bloomed from his roots in the city, controlled for decades by the Democratic machine and the Catholic church.

In the previous novels in his Albany cycle, which include "Legs," "Roscoe," "Quinn's Book," "The Flaming Corsage," "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game," and the evocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed," the fully formed characters haven't strayed far from their roots, finding plenty of debauchery and mysticism within a three-mile radius of State and Pearl streets in Albany, an epicenter of my youth as well as Kennedy's.

So it is with a sly smile, no doubt, that he includes the comment made by his protagonist and alter-ego, Daniel Quinn, "I see heroes but editors see winos and bums. Who wants to read about bums, especially bums in Albany?"

Plenty of people, as Kennedy has discovered.

"Chango's Beads and Two-Toned Shoes," a book with a double-barreled name to match its two geographic focal points, takes readers far from the familiar streets of Albany. It opens with a brief, confusing scene set in 1936: Daniel Quinn, age 8, wakes to singing and sees a group of men, black and white, bringing an upright piano into the house of his father, George.

The men chat about horses and music, interspersing their remarks with lines of songs. One stranger named Bing -- can it be Bing Crosby? -- sings. Seen through the eyes of a suddenly awakened child, the whole scene has a mysterious allure. We are left puzzled, possibly a bit frustrated. But all will become clear later, as Kennedy weaves what seem like thousands of strands of narrative into a comprehensive story.

The scene shifts to 1957 Cuba, where George Quinn, now a newspaperman, after several fruitless nights waiting in a bar, finally has a chance to speak with his hero, Hemingway.

In what must be recorded as one of the best opening lines in any dialogue, Quinn tells a bloated and irritable Hemingway:

"I'm Daniel Quinn. I just quit the Miami Herald to write a novel and you're responsible for me being out of a job. Does it bother you how many reporters you've led into poverty?"

"Did you eat today?" Hemingway asked, frowning with his eyes.

"I had breakfast."

"You had breakfast and you're drinking rum at the best bar in Havana and you're crying poverty."

"I was exaggerating to make a point."

"Keep it up and soon you'll have a novel," Hemingway said.

Kennedy's Hemingway is combative and dismissive and yet somehow tolerant of Quinn's presence. Perhaps that opening line got to him. But little does Quinn expect that the fateful night holds a meeting that will change his life.

Hemingway says to Quinn, "Shun adverbs, strenuously. What do you think of the woman who's sitting at that far table?"

With Max Osborne, an editor at the Havana Post and also a spy, is Renata Suarez Otero, a slender woman with a " sharp nose, large black eyes, lips full in a curvacious smile that was radiant, her black hair falling just below her shoulders and with a natural wildness in its curl. 'She is spectacularly beautiful,' Quinn said. 'I could fall in love with her right now. I might marry her.' "

Although his opening line to her cannot rival the one he used on Hemingway -- Quinn says only "Hola," when Max brings her over to meet Hemingway -- Renata is improbably attracted to this callow Irish boy from Albany. "I am fond of you. Instantly. Anoche. You have a manner. You seem to be different," she tells him, coolly. "From your lovers?" Quinn asks. "Yes. I think so. You have a way. How you look at a woman. It is possible I could marry you some day, but it is too soon to know."

Renata is involved with a rebel, and almost immediately she needs Quinn's help to move guns after a bloody and futile attack on the Presidential Palace. As he is drawn further into her personal and political web, he discovers her involvement with Santeria, a multideity religion with complicated magic-based rituals. She takes Quinn to see a Santeria priest, who predicts danger and gives him beads that invoke Chango, the god of fire, to protect him.

The fast-moving first part of the book is dense with detail, most of it captivating. The one flaw is the occasionally jarring staccato dialogue, which makes every speaker sound like a hard-boiled, tight-lipped, fedora-wearing man.

After more than 100 pages, several satisfying chunks of backstory and Quinn's meeting with Fidel Castro, the story shifts back to Albany in 1968, a time and place that was as hot as Havana 10 years earlier. It's a cauldron of conflict between the old and the new, immediately recognizable to that era's city residents. The Brothers civil rights group has an office in Arbor Hill, the ill and injured seek refuge at Memorial Hospital and Catholic priest Father Peter Young works for justice.

Against the forces of change are the formidable and, if necessary, ruthless Dan O'Connell, called Patsy McCall, who ran the Democratic machine in Albany from the early 1920s until his death in 1977, and his philandering patrician mayoral partner, Erastus Corning II, called Alex Fitzgibbons. A plot to shoot the mayor, underhanded deals, urgent needs and violence of many kinds move along the narrative, which is liberally sprinkled with prostitution, gambling, drugs and the other vices that flourish in every human society.

The Democratic machine, powered by favors, jobs, graft and the often rumored and occasionally documented crisp $5 bill per vote, is not about to back down. As the powerless find their voices, entrenched tradition proves tenacious. In Albany, a city that has kept many of its natives for generations, memory perseveres, so it rings true that Kennedy's characters in the 1960s are still discussing a 1937 win of $11,000 on policy numbers.

The themes that power Kennedy's fiction -- greed, power, violence, love and politics -- shine through, whether the setting is the Palace Theater in Albany during race conflicts in 1968 or the Presidential Palace in Havana in 1958 during a rebel attack. Bravery and foolishness, devotion and self-interest, the lure of love and lust are the same. And that, despite the geographic and cultural distance between Cuba and Albany, is the lesson Kennedy imparts in this complicated, fast-paced novel.

Anne Neville, whose ancestors settled in Albany in the 1850s, is the only member of her family who has ever lived more than 30 miles from downtown Albany.


Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes

By William Kennedy


326 pages, $26.95