William Kennedy is probably best known for his award winning novel Ironweed which became even better known when it was turned into a movie with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. I hadn’t read anything else by him but was intrigued by his latest novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, mainly because Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro both appear as characters in the book. Even better and somewhat stranger, Bing Crosby is one of the characters in the first scene. While the fictionalized versions of these real people were satisfying, they don’t appear all that often in the novel. I didn’t find this disappointing as the book’s main character, a journalist named Daniel Quinn, has a pretty fascinating life as well.
Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes starts out in Cuba with Quinn meeting Hemingway and later on Fidel Castro. This section was enjoyable but the definite highlight of the book comes when the action switches to Albany, New York on the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot. Racial tensions risk tearing apart the city and Quinn spends the night pursuing, among other things, a story about a down and out man named Zuki who claims he received an offer to shoot Albany’s mayor. The book also follows George, Quinn’s dad, a somewhat senile man who inadvertently ends up on his own adventure on the same night in which he spends most of it thinking he is in Albany fifty years ago. This one night could have been the whole book but Kennedy skillfully ties in the section set in Cuba. Hopefully this is not the last book from this important American novelist.