Witness to the Persecution

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Author: Ben Giamo

William kennedy photo from Times Union, Albany, NY

“I now think of Havana as a suburb of Albany,” William Kennedy told me during an interview last October when his newest novel, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, first appeared.

The novel is the latest installment of the 84-year-old author’s much celebrated “Albany cycle,” begun in 1975 with Legs, which told the story of real-life gangster Legs Diamond. The eight-novel series, including the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed as well as Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), Quinn’s Book (1988) and Roscoe (2002), takes place in New York’s gritty capital city and wisely weaves character and place, politics and family into the austere realities of a single city and the broader truths about our American landscape.

Kennedy, who attended Notre Dame’s Sophomore Literary Festival in 2000 and received an honorary degree from the University in 2001, will return to campus this fall to give a reading and series of talks.

The author’s newest novel follows journalist Daniel Quinn to Cuba, where he covers the insurrection against the dictator Fulgencio Batista and the Castro revolution — just as Kennedy did as a young journalist. And it, too, grafts fictional characters onto real people and entangles them in real events. Early on, for example, Kennedy takes the reader back to 1957 and into a Havana nightclub — El Floridita, famous as the bar Ernest Hemingway patronized. Quinn talks with the then-fading author after Hemingway slugs a tourist whose singing he doesn’t like.

That same evening the book’s protagonist falls for the beautiful and seditious Cuban woman, Renata Suarez Otero, who will lead Quinn to Castro for an interview and eventually become his wife. The relationship between the Irish-American realist and Cuban idealist provides a stylistic tension to the book’s storyline that moves between Albany and Havana. Kennedy’s abiding interest in the tyranny of the political machine resonates from one place to the other in order to map out the common terrain of revolution, love (romantic and spiritual), and racial conflict.

Cuba (“March 12, 1957”) represents about a third of the story. It comes between a brief first section (“Albany, August 1936”), setting the tone and introducing most of the principals, and the lengthy final section (“Albany, Wednesday, June 5, 1968”). The latter date coincides with Robert Kennedy’s assassination, providing a backdrop for the author to examine themes of racism and oppression with his characteristic humor, drama and pathos. Moving deftly across time and place, incident and consequence, William Kennedy unites the social struggles in Havana and Albany by virtue of fully drawn and interrelated characters, intricate plotlines and sustained themes.

As always, the author tests the limits of the writer’s role as witness to history, witness to the warriors who emerge to wage the battles and put their lives on the line, witness to the trajectory of the arc of justice. Does the arc bend toward justice, Kennedy seems to ask, or does it flatten into a straight line? The result is a tour de force, Kennedy’s most ambitious and complex novel to date, marking him as one of the pre-eminent novelists of our time.

Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes took Kennedy nine years to complete. His original intention was to write a nonfiction book on Cuba, a place that had fascinated him since his early stints as a journalist from 1956 to 1962 for the Puerto Rico World Journal, the San Juan Star and the Miami Herald, where he was assigned the Cuba beat. In a way, he did fulfill that intention by writing the introduction to Cuba on the Verge: An Island in Transition, a collection of essays and photographs by Cuban and American writers about the island published in 2003.

Realizing he wanted to return to fiction, Kennedy later admitted that this was a difficult decision for a writer in his 70s because of the lengthy research required. In the beginning, the working title for the novel was simply “Pop’s novel, and the Cuba novel,” he explained when we spoke last fall. “I would always come back to my father, Cuba and the civil rights movement. . . . How to do it was the key.” As with Legs, the first in the “Albany cycle,” Kennedy mulled it over, ran conversations through his mind and wrote notes that ended up longer than the novel itself. It was a “chaotic process,” he said; evidently he got it right.

Although Kennedy never traveled as a young journalist to Cuba while working for the Miami Herald, he had the good fortune of Cuba coming to him — political exiles, mainly University of Havana students who belonged to the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil and survivors of the Palace attack of March 1957, during which some 40 student revolutionaries died in the failed attempt to assassinate President Batista.

Faure Chomón, the second-in-command, was wounded in the attack and fled to Miami. Kennedy had a long interview with him and befriended other exiles as well. It was “a very rich time with a lot of good stories,” he recalled, and he quickly found himself inside the rebel group. From then on, he knew he would someday write about the insurrection — and about Cuba — more broadly. Later trips he made to Cuba — in 1987, when he met with fellow writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fidel Castro, and in 2001 and 2003 — only reinforced his desire to expropriate Cuba into his expanding literary imagination, to make Havana a suburb of Albany.

Throughout the novel, the narrator remains a steadfast witness to those “fighting the ongoing war” against oppression and injustice. Quinn, Kennedy clarified, is “not a warrior as such, but a witness to the warriors carrying on.” In Albany such warriors include Tremont Van Ort, a homeless black wino who wears the two-tone shoes and easily travels between the city’s diverse and warring communities to become an unlikely yet valiant hero; Roy Mason, head of the black power movement; and Matt Daugherty, a renegade Franciscan priest whose mission to transform an unjust world is centered in The Gut, the old night town that has become an Albany slum.

The parallel characters in Kennedy’s Cuba are Castro; members of the rebellious Directorio; and Quinn’s namesake grandfather, who had chronicled Cuba’s Ten Years’ War (begun in 1868) and who had covered the island’s slave revolt and Mambí rebels a century ago. The key figure, however, is the bewitching Renata. Much of the book’s appeal derives from Quinn’s tempestuous relationship with this wealthy, connected, wild-eyed activist whom he impulsively marries during the revolution.

Overlooking all of these worthy fighters is the specter of Changó, the warrior deity of Santeria, the religious myths inherited from the Yoruba after they arrived as slaves in Cuba. These myths often mix Catholic and indigenous beliefs. An animistic divinity of fire, lightning and thunder, Changó becomes a powerful spiritual force in the novel, particularly when set in Cuba.

In the novel, for instance, when Quinn meets an old seer on his way to interview Castro in the Sierra Maestra, he is christened by an artifact placed around his neck: “He wears the dead like the beads of Changó.” This simply goes with the territory of bearing witness to the broken world, so often torn asunder by the brutal relations between the powerful and powerless.

The blend of faith and love is richly expressed by Renata, who defies all expectations by being both haute bourgeois and a gunrunner for the revolution. Alluding to the redemptive power of spiritual love, she says, “Love will save us and remake us. Love will do what parents and doctors and spouses cannot do. Love will do it all if you take it into your soul and caress it.”

Then, explaining romantic love to Quinn, Renata continues, “Nobody can know what love means, or how it arrives or how it lasts, or even if it exists, because we are never free from doubt. . . . I create love by making it, by believing in it even when it doesn’t exist. Love can make love exist, but love cannot make itself last. All I can do is try to make love exist, and sometimes I succeed.”

In this fashion, Kennedy brings us right into the heart of the matter, weaving together the essential elements of belief, love and liberation. As readers, we soon become engaged onlookers to the witness, oppressors, warriors and healers alike. We see the unrelenting cruelty of political regimes and machines in dramatic style, but we also see — especially through Santeria drum-beat rituals — the ongoing celebration of life even as it is being threatened or extinguished.

In Albany, the character of George Quinn — Pop — is the perfect vehicle with which to strike up the band once the novel heads north: unbound by dementia, lost in the city and drawing all the dramatic (and some romantic) action toward him, he is a wondrous embodiment of an altered state of song and dance, bridging old and new Albany by virtue of his lapses, lyrics and stories.

Kennedy becomes a center of consciousness in the novel, creating volatile and quotidian moments of life pushed to the margins in vivid and credible ways. Given his Irish-American Catholic upbringing and his Franciscan educational background at Siena College, he projects an active social conscience into his warrior characters. And Quinn, the journalist who “keep[s] track of stuff,” conveys a measure of maturity and detachment that keeps the witness to time and place, political events and family history from becoming didactic and sentimental.

In the novel, Kennedy identifies Quinn’s motives for being a writer and a witness: “He has a strong impulse to salvage history, which is so fragile, so prismatic, so easily twisted, so often lost and forgotten.” And why is it necessary for Kennedy himself to be a writer/witness who salvages history? “I think that it’s an invented reason — because we’re here to record it for the sake of posterity. We’re here, and we are the witness, and we are the only witness to now and to our ancestors just a little before us. . . . . It’s a natural thing, and this becomes valuable because it’s so ephemeral. And somebody has to say that. It’s what we do.”

The projection of Kennedy’s social consciousness into the subjects of revolution in Cuba and racial tension and uprising in Albany, filtered through humane characters and authentic dialogue, would be a daunting task for any writer. But what gives this novel an added dimension is his incorporation of song into the story — ranging from popular standards to jazz, soul and even what was known pejoratively as “coon songs.”

The tone is set at the novel’s very beginning when Quinn, as a boy, happens upon Bing Crosby and Cody Mason performing “Shine.” The young Quinn is both moved and mystified, for he doesn’t know what the word means. Crosby offers a glimpse into the complexities of the word and racial stereotyping: “It’s an insult. A bad word but a great song. The song turns the insult inside out.”

Kennedy develops this ambiguity throughout the novel, placing the song in the hybrid social context of black minstrelsy and theater and the rise of black performers. In the Albany section, “Shine” becomes contested terrain, aggravating the generation gap between African-American fathers and sons who grew up worlds apart. Accordingly, the song becomes the measure of our progress as well as a reminder of the way we were.

The song “Shine” is central to the novel, “one of the reasons I wrote the book the way I wrote it,” Kennedy said. “I’ve been listening to that song for 70 years. . . . I never knew how I was going to use ‘Shine.’ I just knew ‘Shine’ was going to be in the book. It’s a song that’s driven me crazy over the years. I love it so much.”

Did he have any hesitation in exploring the terrain of the “coon song”? “Are you kidding?” Kennedy said. “I’ve been walking on eggs with those songs. I read everything I could find on ‘coon songs.’ I listened to them . . . . And I read all the books about the history of black theater and minstrelsy, and white minstrelsy, and how white minstrelsy began as an imitation of black life, and then black minstrelsy continued as a sendup of white minstrelsy. They were stereotyping the whites, and then they moved forward into the 20th century with the ‘coon songs.’”

Kennedy’s keen interest in the color-coded genre became a cultural force that propelled him onward creatively. “What I discovered was that ‘coon songs’ created an extreme form of popularity for black performers, and this was an incredibly forward motion for black theater and black life . . . into a new level of consciousness in the larger white world.”

He added, “They were denigrating, yes, yes, they were indeed. . . . [But] this was progress of a kind in theater, and black performers were getting bigger than ever.” Kennedy points to Bert Williams as an example. “He was one of the richest performers in the world, bar none. . . . And he is this quintessential ‘coon’ and suddenly he makes the leap into the Ziegfeld Follies in the teens — the first black man in the Follies . . . the first black man on Broadway in a white show.”

Kennedy mines the ambivalence surrounding “coon songs” in the novel. From a contemporary perspective, the homeless Tremont expresses his distaste for them: “That stuff . . . suckin’ us into the lowdown — coon funny, coon foolish, wind him up and he smile, he shuffle.” But Tremont also reflects on the viewpoint of his deceased father, Big Jimmy Van, who moved from sideshow minstrel to singing a reprise of “Shine” in S. H. Dudley’s African-American road show hit His Honor the Barber. In reality, that early form of Broadway musical featured Ada Walker and had a 16-day run at the Majestic Theatre in May 1911.

In the novel, as Big Jimmy’s reputation grew among black audiences, he switched to vaudeville, traveling the circuit to both black and white venues, and soon everyone across the country came to know his talent. With the money he made, Jimmy opened a nightclub in Albany and became a political force to reckon with — the most famous African-American resident and proprietor in town. For Tremont, this is reason for pause, reason to understand the movement of a cultural dialectic arcing across time.

Kennedy views this rising of black performers as a critical form of racial positioning. “They raved about these shows,” he told me. “This was definitely a moment of progress. And if it wasn’t, I wanted it to be and I made it so, because I think this is what some of those songs did, turning everything inside out, however horrible they were and degrading. There was substance to what happened because of them, and even the worst of them made everything so popular for black music and black entertainers. And, of course, entertainers were one of the ways that the black race moved up in the world.”

One might see this as a prequel to the civil rights movement on the cultural stage. It is part and parcel of the broader social struggle, “striving to get beyond,” as Kennedy put it, in order to surmount those “obstacles of your rise into significance of self.” He clarified the process: “This is the first phase of the battle. And then what you also encounter is formidable opposition . . . that comes with oppression, whether it’s racial or ethnic. For example, blacks rising out of the incredible, unbelievable hell of slavery . . . to become something better, something above the pain, above the punishment, and into a kind of clear moment of self-revelation that you are somebody. And now that you are somebody, how do you get to be something, somewhere, and so on? The idea is the rise of everybody into a plane of significance, a plane of achievement. . . . [This] is the kernel of growth that made me want to write a book like this.”

The novel that emerged from Kennedy’s astute literary gift for transforming fact into fiction is a significant accomplishment in itself. In his quest to document the dramatic events in Cuba and Albany, it is clear that Kennedy’s main protagonist, Daniel Quinn, stands with the victims as he tirelessly reports on their revolutionary mission to alter the order of existence.

This call to witness the just cause and its vicissitudes is animated by the character’s grandfather, who threw himself into “losing causes and war all his life” during the second half of the 19th century. Quinn inherits this vocation from his ancestor, whose quixotic take on revolt amounts to a notion of constant struggle against negative forces: “Great losers never lose and revolutions never fail; they evolve heroically, with the memory of martyred multitudes and the survivors’ imaginations perpetually breeding a counterforce, and new heroes to drive it.”

“We shall overcome,” Martin Luther King, Jr., assured his followers, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” No doubt, Quinn’s invincible grandfather would heartily agree. But Quinn the grandson is created out of our own time and registers a note of skepticism. For despite his tireless efforts to see clear to the bottom of the social conflict and uncover the source of a treacherous plot, thereby bending that arc toward the good of society, Quinn concludes that he is a failed witness to history. Victim of a power play by the machine and the press, his voice is silenced.

In the surrealistic codas to the Cuba and Albany sections, Kennedy places Quinn the younger in the lecture hall of the dead. Even they lose their appetite for his resolute discourse, leaving their seats one by one. Unfazed, Quinn speaks about political duplicity as the necessary trigger for action. No matter that he has lost his audience. He goes on, picking up steam:

“Ours is a cosmos in motion . . . moving relentlessly in an arc of justice.” He smiled, fully aware his remarks were menacing. The room was now empty. . . .

“In an arc of justice,” he said again.

Always leave ’em laughing.

Quinn ends up talking to himself. The ironic chuckle — and challenge — is pointed. If we do not want that arc to flatline, then we need citizens to pay attention, we need an informed and receptive audience to keep the witness and his testimony from falling on deaf ears. Truth is meant to be told, and the call to justice shared with a broader community of potential witnesses and activists. Maybe then we’ll have a chance to make the whole world shine.


Ben Giamo is an associate professor in the Department of American Studies at Notre Dame.


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