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Accordion Crimes

Accordion Crimes

3.6 16
by Annie Proulx

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Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annie Proulx brings the immigrant experience to life in this stunning novel that traces the ownership of a simple green accordion.

E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes is a masterpiece of storytelling that spans a century and a continent. Proulx brings the immigrant experience in America to life through the eyes of


Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annie Proulx brings the immigrant experience to life in this stunning novel that traces the ownership of a simple green accordion.

E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes is a masterpiece of storytelling that spans a century and a continent. Proulx brings the immigrant experience in America to life through the eyes of the descendants of Mexicans, Poles, Africans, Irish-Scots, Franco-Canadians and many others, all linked by their successive ownership of a simple green accordion. The music they make is their last link with the past—voice for their fantasies, sorrows and exuberance. Proulx’s prodigious knowledge, unforgettable characters and radiant language make Accordion Crimes a stunning novel, exhilarating in its scope and originality.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner

Like the outdated musical instrument it celebrates, E. Annie Proulx's ambitious new novel -- the follow-up to her wildly (almost flukily) successful The Shipping News -- makes a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

Library Journal
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.
John Sutherland
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.

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Chapter 1

The Accordion Maker

The instrument

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

Meet the Author

Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the story collection Close Range. Her many honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner award. Her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Her most recent novel is Barkskins. She lives in Seattle.

Brief Biography

LaBarge, Wyoming
Date of Birth:
August 22, 1935
Place of Birth:
Norwich, Connecticut
Attended Colby College in the 1950s. B.A., University of Vermont, 1969; M.A., Sir George Williams University, 1973

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Accordion Crimes 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Book Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx is a fantastic book addressing adversity and intolerance. The book folllows the path of a little green accordion as it travels from immigrant to immigrant, each facing the harsh reality of being a minority in America. The music of the accordion, though different to each culture, possesses the same meaning and outlet of lamentation for every character. The book, though it does not read like the conventional novel, does a thorough job of expressing the pain, the ecstasy, the fights, and the struggles of each individuals personal battles as well as their battles with society. How Proulx uses the accordion as a conceit throughout the story is phenomenal and raw. One must remember though, the heart of the story lies with the accordion, and with its passing from hand to hand, so do the stories and lives of past owners. Abrupt in endings, it can leave the reader dangling for an explanation. One should read this book if they are searching for a book to totally envelope their senses and bring out the sometimes hidden humanity in each person. Proulx does a mesmerizing job of painting the most rigid and vivid scenes for the reader. One cannot help but feel the same haunting surroundings as the characters. Accordion Crimes is a dense, rich, immaculate, and powerful novel- leaving the reader speechless and moved upon its completion. A five out of five stars, Accordion Crimes will leave the reader clamoring for more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Another great book by the prize winning author! What an interesting premise for a story! Read this if you want something different!
Guest More than 1 year ago
After winning both a Pulitzer price and a National Book Award for 'The Shipping News' one thinks that it is hard to try and do better. Well 'Accordion crimes' turn out to be again an excellent book, but not with the greatness of 'The Shipping News'. In 'Accordeon crimes' it is the story, with it's line of crimes, murders and accidents, that doesn't have the warmth and humor 'The Shipping News' had. The writing by E. Annie Proulx is again of a rare and eloquent style, very rich, sometimes elaborate, sometimes pointy. The story is holding up a mirror to all of us and shows how easily we judge and disapprove of something we do not know. Eventhough there is a thin storyline that connects the chapters, one could also read it as a series of sort storiers on a common theme. For those that do not like accordeon music (like me ;-)), read the book and you'll never look at an accordeon again without giving it a second glance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Accordion Crimes is a terrific though slow, methodical read. Proulx is masterful at telling the gritty stories of America's immigrants. As I was reading, I would often stop mid-paragraph to savor the artistry of a perfectly crafted sentence. One small complaint, though: Accordion Crimes calls itself a novel but reads like a collection of short stories that Proulx fails to connect in a way that makes the book a satisfying and cohesive whole.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 'Shipping News', E.Annie Proulx gives us a beautiful and satisfying tale which follows the lives of an unconventional and sympathetic group of characters. In 'Accordian Crimes' the central character is a little accordian which travels through time, touching scores of lives, sometimes just glancing off, sometimes meshing, giving glimpses, vignettes or extended portraits, providing a kaleidoscopic view of lives in America. Ms. Proulx's mind and mode of expression glitters with breathtaking variety and detail. 'Shipping New' teaches us all about Newfoundland as we settle there with the Quoyle family. 'Accordian Crimes' includes most of the United States and the diverse national backgrounds of its population, with their sundry occupations, proclivities, perversions, affections and animosities. Ms Proulx is a sensational writer!
loloofaz More than 1 year ago
Liked her other books much better. This was kind of too much like short stories,which I really don't like and I felt it was going nowhere.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is definitely the worst book I've ever read.  I would put this in the "Horror" genre.  Proulx has cast every immigrant (except the WASP's) as filthy, ignorant, sexually deviant animals.  In her view,  only those who came over on the Mayflower were pure, godly people.  She finds no redeeming qualities about any immigrant ... and throws the native American Indians in with them.  Each story has explicitly brutal endings for the characters as well as the animals.  They say you write what you know ... I'm scared by what experiences Proulx must have had to be able to come up with these stories!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Proulx is a descriptive writer who has written a series of stories about the immigrants experience in America. She tied them together with the green accordion that kept appearing in each story. Many in my book club found the language offensive and the stories too sexually explicit. I personally didn't have a problem with either of these but I did not find a single character except maybe the accordion maker that I could relate to. I felt like the writer just wanted to shock her audience. Like a movie with too much blood and guts and no real content I expected more from the author of The Shipping News. I very disappointing read that I would not recommend to anyone she gets an extra star for her knowledge of her subject matter and all her extensive lists.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So imaginative! I could not wait for the next story.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very disappointed. Writer is obviously not concerned with the reader's concept of the title. Language was so vulgar I had to keep skipping parargraphs and pages to get by the horrible use of the English language. Sexually explicit and very bad choice of the title. Very misleading and I purchased copies for my friends before I read it. Can't tell you how embarrassed I was when I started reading. I apologized to each of my friends for the graphic language. This could have been a very good book about the travels of a green accordion and just described the owners.Telling about their sexual preferences and the choice of such a horrible language to embellish the characters was all unecessary. This writer definitely has been around some very shady characters to write in this manner. Would never recommend it to anyone. The only crime was that this author was published.