Kennedy (Roscoe, 2002, etc.), whose 1983 Albany-centered novel Ironwood won the Pulitzer Prize, returns to his upstate New York home turf with a side trip to Cuba in this decades-jumping novel about a journalist's less-than-objective brushes with history.
In 1936 Albany, 8-year-old Daniel Quinn hears Bing Crosby and a black man named Cody singing a duet with a borrowed piano in the house of a man named Alex, an experience that becomes a dream-like memory of musical and racial harmony. In 1957, Quinn is a fledgling journalist in Havana—Kennedy covered Cuba as a journalist himself—where Hemingway makes Quinn his second in a duel with an American tourist, the novel's version of comic relief. Through Hemingway, Quinn is hired by Max, the editor of The Havana Post, who happened to be present at the Bing-Cody duet. And Quinn falls in love with Renata, Max's ex-sister-in-law, a striking beauty involved with the anti-Batista movement. They quickly marry in part because the wedding gives them a legitimate excuse to travel into the mountains where Quinn hopes to find Fidel Castro. Quinn sets off for his interview, in which Fidel comes off as a philosophical tactician, but when he returns Renata has disappeared, probably taken by Batista goons. Cut to 1968, the day after Robert Kennedy is shot. Quinn is back in Albany, working as a reporter. Renata is back with him, but the marriage is floundering. With them live Daniel’s father George, who is suffering from dementia, and Renata's niece (Max's daughter) Gloria, who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown. In love with Cody’s son Roy, Gloria is also involved with her godfather Alex, now the corrupt mayor of Albany, where racial tensions are peaking.
Full of larger-than-life characters, strong men and stronger women who marry personal passions to national events, Kennedy's novel has the mark of genius, yet a surfeit of names and plot threads discourage readers from fully engaging.