Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes
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From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Ironweed, a dramatic novel of love and revolution from one of America's finest writers
When journalist Daniel Quinn meets Ernest Hemingway at the Floridita bar in Havana, Cuba, in 1957, he has no idea that his own affinity for simple, declarative sentences will change his life radically overnight.
So begins William Kennedy's latest novel—a tale of revolutionary intrigue, heroic journalism, crooked politicians, drug-running gangsters, Albany race riots, and the improbable rise of Fidel Castro. Quinn's epic journey carries him through the nightclubs and jungles of Cuba and into the newsrooms and racially charged streets of Albany on the day Robert Kennedy is fatally shot in 1968. The odyssey brings Quinn, and his exotic but unpredictable Cuban wife, Renata, a debutante revolutionary, face-to-face with the darkest facets of human nature and illuminates the power of love in the presence of death.
Kennedy masterfully gathers together an unlikely cast of vivid characters in a breathtaking adventure full of music, mysticism, and murder—a homeless black alcoholic, a radical Catholic priest, a senile parent, a terminally ill jazz legend, the imperious mayor of Albany, Bing Crosby, Hemingway, Castro, and a ragtag ensemble of radicals, prostitutes, provocateurs, and underworld heavies. This is an unforgettably riotous story of revolution, romance, and redemption, set against the landscape of the civil rights movement as it challenges the legendary and vengeful Albany political machine.
ALBANY, AUGUST 1936
Just because my hair is curly. . . No. My hair’s not curly, is what occurred to Quinn. The words must have come up and over the hall banister and eased their way into his sleep. Somebody is singing is what it is. Just because I always wear a smile . . . Quinn knew the voice. He opened his eyes to no daylight and he listened: ‘Cause, I’m glad I’m livin’. . .
Quinn threw back the sheet that covered him and stood up into the musical darkness. He was still dressed but no shoes. He found them and walked to the hallway and down to the first landing of the stairs where he could look through the uprights of the banister at whoever was singing in the parlor below. It wasn’t the radio, not a Victrola. Somebody in the house was singing. Just because my color’s shady. . .
“Bingo, you want the same?” somebody asked.
“Never change horses in a six-furlong race, Alex.” Was it Bingo who answered? Bingo was the singer. There were other men in the parlor: Alex, this was his house, a Negro man Quinn didn’t know, the one Alex calls Bingo, and one who was a stranger to Quinn. The front door opened and Quinn moved two steps down to see his father coming in with two more Negro men who were lifting a small piano over the threshold and onto the marble floor of the foyer.
“One upright piano comin’ at you, Alex,” George Quinn said.
“Into the parlor and behind the large sofa,” Alex said. He pulled a roll of money from his pants pocket and gave it to George, who divided it between the two Negroes. They went out.
“Nice going, George,” Alex said. “You did it.”
“Jimmy was glad to let us borrow it,” George said. “For that kind of money he can buy a new piano.”
Alex went to the bar and poured from a bottle, was it whiskey? He put it in five glasses and passed them out to the others. “To fast horses and beautiful women,” Alex said, raising his glass.
“Or beautiful horses and fast women,” Bingo said.
“Or fast horses and faster women,” the stranger said.
“You’re a speedy citizen, Max,” Bingo said.
“Should I find some beautiful women to join us?” Max asked.
“Patience, Max, patience,” Bingo said.
“This is one hell of a mansion you got here, Alex,” the Negro said.
“The pharaohs didn’t have it this good,” Bingo said.
“Where do we sleep?” the Negro asked.
“You’re in the guest house, Cody,” Alex said. “I’ll give you the tour.”
“I didn’t bring a toothbrush.”
“We’ve got extras.”
“You been here before, Bing?” Cody asked.
“Been to Albany but not in this manse.”
“Bing and I go back a couple of years in Saratoga,” Alex said. “My father bred thoroughbreds and Bing bought one of them.”
Bing, not Bingo.
“A nice horse,” Bing said, “Not swift.”
Quinn knew Bing from the radio. Bing Crosby is really singing right here. A party.
“You were with Paul Whiteman,” George Quinn said.
“My traveling days,” Bing said.
“Whiteman got my brother-in-law fired from Riley’s,” George said. “Billy Phelan. Billy was dealing at the crap table and Whiteman asked him for five hundred cash for an IOU. He called Billy ‘sonny’. ‘Give me five hundred, sonny.’ Billy wouldn’t give it to him and Whiteman said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And Billy said ‘Yeah, you’re the guy with that hillbilly band playing over at Piping Rock.’”
“Big Paul loved that,” Bing said.
“They fired Billy.”
“Too bad,” Bing said. “He had a good ear for hillbillies.”
“Music, Cody, we need music,” Alex said.
Cody carried a chair to the piano and sat down. He hit a chord and Bing sang a note and held it. He sang some words:
“Just because my hair is curly,
“Just because my teeth are pearly. . .”
Quinn looked at the five men, trying to understand this gathering. He jounced down a few steps. Bing sang:
“Just because my color’s shady,
“You’s a shady baby,” Cody sang.
Then Cody and Bing together:
“That’s the reason, maybe,
“Why they call me shine.”
Cody saw Quinn at the foot of the stairs and stopped playing. “Hey, whose little man are you?”
“That’s Danny, my little man,” George said. “He’s had to follow me around all day and all night. Peg had some work in Atlantic City.”
“Come on, join the party, Dan,” Cody said.
Quinn walked to his father, who put his arm around the boy’s head and squeezed.
“Howdy, Dan,” Bing said. He offered Danny a handshake.
Quinn shook it and looked at all the men he only half knew. What were they doing? “You’re Bing,” Quinn said.
“Hey, you been following’ me? You been tappin’ my telephone?”
“I heard you on the radio.”
“Can’t deny it. I’ve been on the radio.”
“He stays up till your show is over,” George said.
“The boy will go far,” Bing said.
Quinn looked at Cody and thought he should also shake hands with him. “You’re going to stay in the guest house,” Quinn said.
“You got a lot of information on people,” Cody said.
“I like that song,” Quinn said. “Shine – what’s that?”
Nobody answered him.
“Shine,” Alex said, “like a shine on your shoes.”
“Or ‘Shine on Harvest Moon,’” Bing said.
“Like the thing at the end of our kitchen light string,” George said. “It shines in the dark.”
“’Shine’’s a song,” Cody said. “Bing recorded it with the Mills Brothers. You ever heard of the Mills Brothers?”
“No,” Quinn said.
“Well, you should,” Cody said. “Get your Daddy to buy you their records.”
“Very great singers,” Bing said.
“‘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.”
“What insult?” Quinn asked.
“I’ll tell you later,” George said.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from CHANGS BEADS AND TWO-TONE SHOES by William Kennedy. Copyright 2011 by William Kennedy
"His most musical work of fiction: a polyrhythmic contemplation of time and its effects on passion set in three different eras . . . this is not a book a young man would or could write. There is the sense here of somebody who has seen and considered much, without letting his inner fire cool . . . the ambition and the ability to pull wildly diverse worlds together in a single story is rare. Kennedy, master of the Irish-American lament in works like Billy Phelan's Greatest Game and Ironweed, proves here he can play with both hands and improvise on a theme without losing the beat." — John Sayles, The New York Times Book Review (front page)
"Written with such brio and encompassing humanity that it may well deserve to be called the best of the bunch . . . In Mr. Kennedy's Albany, as in William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, the past is never past. Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is invigorated by this same blending of new and old, of progress and recurrence . . . there's more shot and incidence in Changó than in any novel of Mr. Kennedy's since Legs . . . the style here has the sleekness and strength of good crime noir." — Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
"Vivid and charming . . . Kennedy, now in his 80s, is in the embrace of nostalgia as he looks back on the adventures of his youth, and this gives the novel much of its not inconsiderable appeal . . . He is a fluid, engaging prose stylist, and frequently a witty one . . . Kennedy has maintained a high level of achievement throughout [his Albany Cycle], deftly blending comedy and drama as, over the years, he has painted a portrait of a single city perhaps unique in American fiction." — Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"Kennedy's humor is sly and wonderful . . . there's an almost deliriously rich cast of lowlifes here: gun runners, politicians on the make, street- corner agitators, prostitutes, winos . . . Kennedy's] description of Hemingway . . . is well-nigh perfect." — Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
“A rich, rewarding novel that reads like a three-act play, spanning the years from 1936 to 1968, with several forms of revolution serving as narrative threads . . . The novel is as intricate as it is brilliant.” --Betsy Willeford, The Miami Herald
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