Hugh Grant is wrong. Well, I guess to be more exact, the screenwriter who penned Love Actually is the one who is wrong here. But for argument’s sake, lets just say it is Hugh Grant.
At the beginning of Love Actually, over a montage of families, friends, and couples meeting at the airport, Grant tell us that despite recent events in the early 2000s, love is all around us.
Maybe. But, you want to know what is really all around us? The past. And I’m not talking you live a few blocks from a small skirmish in the Civil War or you use to get drinks at the bar where Joey Ramone learned his third chord. I’m talking personal past.
From visiting your childhood home that has become nothing more than a glorified storage unit for your stuff from your teen years to the subway station where you and an ex first kissed, you can’t outrun the past. It informs the present and will, inevitably, color the future.
While love plays an important role in William Kennedy’s “Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes,” it is the past that permeates the two settings for the novel: 1957 Cuba and Albany, New York.
Centered around Daniel Quinn, we follow him along at three different points of his life – an 8 year old living in Albany, a 30 year old writer in Batista-era Castro, and finally, as an Albany journalist who knows everyone from the local prostitutes to the political kingpins, in the days and hours following the shooting of RFK in California.
While Daniel is the central character, the story not only revolves a host of other individuals who call Cuba and Albany home, it also focuses on two other members of the Quinn famiily: Daniel’s father George and his namesake grandfather who was a globe-trekking journalist-cum-author. It is the Quinn family’s past that takes Daniel to Cuba in the 50s, where he ends up befriending Hemingway, interviewing Fidel Castro in the jungle, meeting the men who would play critical roles in the latter part of the book, and his wife, Renata.
While the book is set in Cuba, the story is well-paced, but there is something uneven about the dialogue. Particularly in romantic moments, the characters sound flat or almost cliched. Kennedy tends to fall back on the notion of Cuba as some sort of geographic aphrodisiac.
Kennedy, who has spent decades living in and writing about Albany shows his prowess when the story shifts to the New York capital in June of 1968. Even during the flashbacks to Cuba that fill in parts of the narrative, Kennedy retains the naturalness of the dialogue he has established in Albany.
To explain the inner workings of Kennedy’s multi-faceted plot would require at least one scorecard. What it boils down to is this: Albany 1968 is facing the same issues every other major city in America. As RFK clings to life, the city is on the edge of a race riot, the mayor might be the target of an assassin, and an outspoken priest is having the screws put to him by the Albany political machine. While all this is going on, Daniel Quinn is dealing with a father who is mentally no longer there, a wife who is on the verge of leaving, and a niece who is caught between the mayor and a local Civil Rights activist. On top of this most combustible mix is the appearance of an old Cuban friend of Quinn and his wife who needs one last favor.
All of these characters trade on their past. The saddest character, in many respects, is Daniel’s father, who ends up spending the day wandering through Albany, avoiding dangerous spots, being at the center of the action, and continually thinking he is in 1930s Albany. His presence is a sober reminder that eventually we too get left behind, one way or another.
The only blemish – outside of the stilted dialogue in Cuba – is how Quinn mentions the idea of writing a novel about his adventures in Havanna and Albany. For me, it was a smidge too cute. But, it does reinforce this idea that even as we are living in the present, we are dutifully aware of the past.
To paraphrase a certain movie Prime Minister, if I will, “If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that the past is all around.”