Like the outdated musical instrument it celebrates, E. Annie Proulx's ambitious new novel -- the follow-up to her wildly (almost flukily) successful The Shipping News -- makes a strange, discordant, eerily compelling kind of music. Hardly a novel at all in the traditional sense, Accordion Crimes is a set of linked stories, set from 1890 to the present, about hard-luck immigrants (Italian, Polish, Irish, German) and their inbred love of accordion music, which seems to them to be the sound of "misery suppressed, injustices born, strength in adversity, endurance."
What links these stories, beyond the accordions that wheeze and clank throughout, is Proulx's voice, which is surely among the most distinctive in American literature. Proulx's clotted sentences are a marvel; raw and unmannered, they teem with odd facts, words that aren't in ictionaries, and whimsically named characters and towns. (In Accordion Crimes, we visit places called Prank and Random, and meet major characters named Malefoot, Octave and Dolor.) Often those sentences end in long, evocative lists; one character, while listening to a late-night border radio station, pulls in ads for "plastic broncos, moon pens, zircon rings, Yellow Boy fishing lures, apron patterns, twelve styles for just one dollar, rat-killer and polystyrene gravestones." And it's hard to imagine another contemporary novelist as gifted at tossing off comic, quasi-exaggerated physical description -- witness the woman who has "furrowed and liver-spotted skin like a slipcover over a rump-sprung sofa."
The characters in Accordion Crimes, as in Proulx's earlier work, have a sturdy sense of doom hanging over them. These men and women are invariably scorned as foreigners and rubes, and are forced to take demeaning jobs; music is one of their few joys. One Mexican immigrant, a musician and waiter, is mocked during the week for "his slowness, clumsiness, stupidity," but on the weekends his tormentors "screamed with joy as they stood in the cascade of his music, touched his sleeve and spoke his name as if he were a saint."
Accordion Crimes is an easy book to admire, but a somewhat more difficult one to like. There are sentences and moments on each page that will stop you cold with their harsh, spotlit beauty, and the accumulated weight of the knowledge and lore on display here is remarkable. Far more than either Postcards or The Shipping News, Accordion Crimes makes the case that Proulx possesses a very real -- and very eccentric -- kind of genius. Yet Accordion Crimes can also seem somewhat remote and mechanical; at the end of each chapter, the characters are killed off, usually in freakish ways (by spider and rattlesnake bites, axe blows, riots, botched operations), preventing the story from building to something larger. The action scrolls by as if under a microscope, lending exactness but rarely amplitude. At one moment late in the novel, Proulx describes a roadside panorama that's lit by "the ruddy flare of brake lights giving the scene heat and feeling." Heat and feeling are what's missing, too often, from i>Accordion Crimes, an earnest and dazzling book that leaves a slight chill in the air. -- Salon
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Proulx (The Shipping News, Audio Reviews, LJ 1/96) combines black humor with stark tragedy in this disturbing series of vignettes centered around the adventures of a small green accordion. The accordion is used by different men as a vehicle of creativity: the instrument for musical expression of the immigrant's dream. The accordion is also something of an evil talisman; its maker is lynched by a mob in 1890, thus beginning the instrument's odyssey through America. It passes through the possession of owners who die painfully of gangrene, snake and spider bites, and suicide. The underlying theme is best stated by a character at the recording's beginning"America is a place of lies and deceit"and is grimly underscored by violence and prejudice. Although this is depressing as social commentary, the author's use of description and detail is remarkably original. Edward Herrmann's reading offers the perfect inflection. Recommended.Jacqueline Seewald, Red Bank Regional H.S. Lib., N.J.
In scale, in vision, and in imaginative daring, Accordion Crimes uses all the range and the resources of Proulx's mature prose....She is a great novelist. -- The New Republic
From the Publisher
John Sutherland The New Republic In scale, in vision and in imaginative darling, Accordion Crimes uses all the range and the resources of Proulx's mature prose....She is a great novelist.
Michael Dirda The Washington Post Book World You would think Proulx would have the simple decency to make her third novel merely so-so, if only to let someone else grab a little limelight. No such luck...She now seems to know everything about writing. And a fair amount about life, too.
Phoebe-Lou Adams Atlantic Monthly Splendid...Ms. Proulx is a magician.
Gail Caldwell Boston Sunday Globe A daringly intelligent work with a soul as wide as the Mississippi.
Kathleen Byrne Globe and Mail Review of Books Crisp and authoritative, her spare, dense prose is mesmerizing ...A majestic novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Accordion Maker
It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance back at the glancer.
He had cut the grille with a jeweler's saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had constructed and fashioned the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kidskin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sawed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. He was not interested in making ordinary accordions. He had his theory, his idea of the fine instrument; with the proof of this one he planned to make hisfortune in La Merica.
He set the fourths and then the fifths with a tuning fork and his naked ear, catching an aching but pleasurable dissonance. His sense of pitch was sure, he heard harmonies in the groan of hinges. The button action was quick, the subtle clacking like the rattle of dice in a gambler's hand. From a distance the voice of the instrument sounded hoarse and crying, reminding listeners of the brutalities of love, of various hungers. The notes fell, biting and sharp; it seemed the tooth that bit was hollowed with pain.
The world is a staircase
The accordion maker was hairy and muscular, a swell of black hair rising above a handsome face, an ear like a pastry circle. His irises were an amber color: in his youth he suffered the name "Chicken Eye." When he was twenty he had defied his blacksmith father and left the village to work in the north in the accordion factories of Castelfidardo. His father cursed him and they never spoke again.
He returned to the village when Alba, his betrothed, sent news of the opportunity to rent a plot of land with a handkerchief vineyard and miniature house. He was glad to leave the city for he was embroiled in a dangerous affair with a married woman. His hairiness drew women's attention. From time to time in their marriage his wife accused him of infidelities, and there were several. Accordions and hair drew women, could he help this? She knew it -- his gift for music had attracted her powerfully, his silky pelt, the hair curling from the throat of his shirt.
He took chills easily, shivered when the sun passed behind a cloud. His wife was warm and it was possible to stand close to her and feel the heat that radiated from her as from a little stove. Her hands seized children, plates, chicken feathers, goats' teats with the same hot grasp.
The rented vines, Calabrese, Negro d'Avola, Spagnolo, made a harsh wine without name, sold as a blending wine to foreigners. It was the local custom to hold the fermenting must on the skins for a week, the source of the wine's rough character and purple-black color. Swallowed straight down, it raked mouth and throat and, as other astringent liquids, was reputed to have beneficial medicinal qualities. The foreign buyers paid very little for it, but as it was the only possible source of cash income, the growers could not protest. The lack of land, money and goods, the boil of people, produced an atmosphere of scheming and connivance, of sleight of hand, of oaths of collusion, of brute force. What other way through life?
Besides the vineyard the accordion maker and his wife rented five old olive trees and a fig espaliered against the wall, and their lives were concerned with children, goats, hoeing and pruning, lugging panniers of grapes. At night the poverty of the place sounded in the whistle of wind through the dry grapestalks and the rub of moaning branches. Their hold on the plot of land weakened as the landlord, who lived in Palermo in a house with a copper roof, increased the rent one year and again the next.
The accordion maker's shop was at the end of the garden -- a hut that once housed sick goats with a floor space no larger than a double bed. On a shelf he had pots of lacquer, a box of flake shellac, various glues and sizings, squares of mother-of-pearl, two corked vials the size of a little finger containing bronze paint. Here were files, scrapers, his chisels -- one a flake of chert he had unearthed from the soil -- and gouges, taps, dies, metal tongues and hooks, tweezers and lengths of spring-steel wire, calipers and rules, nippers, punches and clamps, many of these tools stolen from the factory in Castelfidardo -- how else to gain possession of these necessary things? With a rigger's brush of a few sable hairs he painted scrolls and keys, flourishing triple borders bristling with bronze thorns. He sold the instruments to a dealer in the market town who, like the wine merchants, paid him almost nothing, enough to feed magpies, perhaps.
As the accordion maker gained mastery over his craft he began to imagine a life not possible in the malicious village, but likely enough in the distant place that rose and set in his thoughts: La Merica. He thought of a new life, fresh and unused, of money hanging in the future like pears hidden in high leaves. He whispered and murmured at night to his wife. She answered, "never."
"Listen," he said aloud furiously, waking the baby, "you know what your brother wrote." That bracket-faced fool Alessandro had sent a letter, spotted with red sauce and grimy fingerprints, that said come, come and change your destiny, turn suffering into silver and joy.
"The world is a staircase," hissed the accordion maker in the darkness. "Some go up and some come down. We must ascend." She refused to agree, put her hands over her ears and moaned when he announced a departure date, later pointed up her chin and rolled her eyes like a poisoned horse when he brought home the trunk with metal corners.
The General's paralysis
The accordion maker's posture, suggestive of hidden violence and challenge, caught the eye of other men. He stood with the left foot planted, the right cocked suggestively, his shoes black broken things. His character betrayed his appearance; he seemed louche and aggressive, but was not. He disliked grappling with problems. He depended on his wife to comb through difficulties. He produced the vaulting idea, the optimistic hope, she ordered the way in everything -- until now.
How many wake in the night, stretch out a hand to the sleeping mate and encounter a corpse? In the evening the accordion maker's wife had wept a little, lamented the looming journey, but there was nothing, nothing that gave a sign paralysis would come in a few hours to crouch above her ribs and thrust shims into her joints, stiffen her tongue, freeze her brain and fix her eyes. The accordion maker's fingers trembled up the rigid torso, the stone arm, the hard neck. He believed she was a dead woman. He lit the lamp, cried her name, slapped her marble shoulders. Yet her heart beat, sending the blood pounding through the pipes of veins until her rib-harp vibrated and this encouraged him to believe the afflict