William Kennedy, at 83, is about to publish his long-awaited new Albany novel, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking), the eighth book in his celebrated cycle that has famously tracked the lives of ballplayers, bums, politicians, playwrights, prostitutes, gamblers, gangsters, bowlers, and more, all seeking to understand what it means to survive in the capital city they have no choice but to call home.
The books are deeply rooted in Albany, but they reach far beyond the city limits, illuminating what it means to be human in this chaotic, corrupting, grace-starved world. Over the years Kennedy has won nearly every award out there, including the majors: the Pulitzer and National Book Award for Ironweed, and a MacArthur, to name just a few.
Changó’s Beads follows firmly in the Kennedy tradition. The action starts in 1936 Albany, shifts to 1957 Havana (where both Castro and Hemingway make dramatic appearances), and returns to Albany on June 5, 1968, the day of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. This 1968 section unfolds over the course of 12 hours as RFK hangs between life and death and several Albany citizens, including Daniel Quinn and his father, George, wander the downtown streets. They drink and talk, and occasionally they run and shoot and swing baseball bats while the city teeters on the edge of yet another riot.
Over the past 40 years, it’s become increasingly clear that Kennedy sees in Albany what Joyce saw in Dublin, Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County, and García Márquez in Macondo. In the introduction to O Albany! (1983), his nonfiction tribute to his hometown, Kennedy describes the city that has shaped his artistic vision: “It is centered squarely in the American and the human continuum, a magical place where the past becomes visible if one is willing to track the multiple incarnations of the city’s soul. I confront even a single street corner and there emerges an archetypal as well as an historical context in which to view the mutations of its trees, its telephone poles.”
It’s impossible not to yearn to see this troubled city through Kennedy’s eyes, and he’s happy to retrace the routes the characters of Changó’s Beads wander. It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in July and to the naked eye the streets appear deserted. Until Kennedy starts talking, that is. In his white guayabera, khaki slacks, and tan loafers, Kennedy sits behind the wheel of his car and once again effortlessly conjures those “multiple incarnations of the city’s soul.”
Near the top of State Street, he glances down the hill, the Hudson River off in the distance. That branch of Citizens Bank? It used to be the State Bank, where George Quinn attempts to cash a check at the start of his pilgrimage in Changó’s Beads. “That’s a very old bank,” Kennedy says. “That was my first job. I was a messenger, carrying millions of dollars of checks all over the city.”
Over on that corner is where the Waldorf cafeteria once stood. “That’s in Ironweed,” Kennedy says. “It’s where Helen goes.” A few blocks further on there’s Green Street, the scene of something like hand-to-hand combat in Changó’s Beads. “This was what was known as the Red Light district. This was the most famous of the streets. This isn’t quite where Bleecker Street was in the novel. I placed it down there. I think Trixie’s [from Roscoe] house may be right up here. It might still be standing. And Hapsy’s, the saloon, I invented that. I moved it from somewhere else.”components/article_pagination.html not found (No such file or directory)