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The bard of Albany comes to the Miami Book Fair with a Cuba novel.

November 8, 2011

The way William Kennedy structures his new novel, partly in revolutionary Cuba, partly in Civil Rights-era Albany, it might appear he’s implying a moral equivalence between Fidel Castro and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, Kennedy, the 83-year-old author of Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes, explained in a telephone interview last week.

William Kennedy will be at Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 1o a.m for a panel discussion with fellow distinguished novelists Russell Banks and Michael Ondaatje. For a complete schedule, visit the book fair website.

“I view Fidel as heroic in the sense of what was achieved with the revolution, but the problems since then put him in a very different light,” Kennedy said by phone from his home in Albany, New York. “He’s certainly a much less heroic figure now than when he was the David overthrowing Goliath.”

In fact, as he told Claire Ailfree at in another recent interview, Kennedy says the Cuban revolution remains unfinished as long as the Castros — ancient, ailing Fidel, and his younger, hardier brother Raul — remain in power.

“The Cuban Revolution is in the process of another transformation now but obviously Castro is going to live forever and if he doesn’t his brother will,” Kennedy says.

Kennedy, of course, is one of America’s greatest living novelists. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for  Ironweed, story of a vagrant alcoholic surviving the Depression. His “Albany Cycle” is often likened to James Joyce’s Dublin, or William Faulkner’s Oxford Miss., immortalized as Yoknapatawpha in his novels.

Kennedy, a reporter for the Miami Herald and the San Juan Star from the mid-1950s to 1963, has always wanted to write about the Caribbean in general and the Cuban Revolution in particular.

He covered the revolution for the Herald in Miami in 1957, reporting from an apartment building owned by Jose Aleman that became a headquarters for anti-Batista radicals, including Carlos Prio, the former Cuban president deposed in the 1952 coup that brought Fulgengio Batista to power.

“The radicals were fomenting revolution,” says Kennedy, who did not visit Cuba for the first time until 1987. “I met a lot of them there.”

Returning to work for the Albany Times-Union in 1963, Kennedy covered, among other things, the Civil Rights movement in Albany, the subject of the second half of Chango’s Beads. What ties the two strains together is protagonist Daniel Quinn, like Kennedy a newspaper reporter.

“I was always going to write a book about Cuba,” Kennedy says. “I wrote short stories about the gunrunners I knew and the ex-revolutionaries always running off and getting killed, but [the stories] weren’t any good. I was going to write a novel 10 or 12 years ago, then a nonfiction book.”

But it was only when Kennedy finally saw a way to write a Cuban novel that could be tied  into the Albany Cycle that he found the way to proceed.

“I decided I would bring the Civil Rights movement in Albany into it,” Kennedy says. “These two things were the two bolts of history in a wild, important, difficult time.”

While Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes, Kennedy’s first novel since 2002’s Roscoe, is a serious book, it’s also fast and very funny, with sexy rapid-fire dialogue that might have come from a 1940s Howard Hawks romantic comedy.

“A lot of people think this is a funny book,” Kennedy says. “I love the idea I’m getting that across. That’s the way I choose to tell a story.”

Chango’s Beads is receiving extraordinary praise from reviewers: “Vibrant,” says the L.A. Times, while USA Today calls it “mature, ambitious work” and praises its “jazzy writing.” The New York Times says it’s Kennedy’s “most musical work.”

The Wall Street Journal says it “has the sleekness and strength of good crime noir,” the Washington Post says it’s “vivid and charming,” and the Miami Herald says it’s “as intricate as it is brilliant.”

That’s about as close to a critical consensus as you’re going to find in 21st century American literature, at least in the declining craft of first-blush newspaper criticism. Although I haven’t reviewed the novel, I certainly concur, charmed and energized especially by the Cuban section, with its tragicomic portrait of a broken-down Hemingway, its doomed revolutionaries, its cocksure reporter, the beautiful radical he falls for, and the trip to the mountains to see Fidel.

You can read my profile of Kennedy in this Sunday’s Sun-Sentinel — sorry, no link yet — and the following weekend, you can see him for yourself at the Miami Book Fair. By the way, Kennedy was at the Key West Literary Seminar a few years back, and I can tell you, age notwithstanding, he’s a charmer on the stage, too.


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