No stranger novel is likely to reach this summer’s best-seller lists than E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, a biography of a green squeeze box that arrives in America in 1890 in the hands of the man who lovingly crafted it and, in its 100-year journey from owner to owner to thief to attic to car trunk to pawnshop to landfill, manages to encompass a full and tortured century of the American immigrant experience. Each of the book’s eight chapters finds the itinerant instrument between the hands of a different ethnic standard-bearer — an Italian laborer in New Orleans, a German farm family in Iowa, a Pole on Chicago’s South Side — in a different era. The unrelated sagas add up to eight different family trees, each gnarled by fate, tragedy, chance, and cruelty.
Two years ago, Proulx’s The Shipping News became that rarity in the publishing world, a ”literary” novel-turned-word-of-mouth smash. As its numerous readers discovered, her descriptive voice can be astonishingly original. In Accordion Crimes, the language is both ebullient and asthmatically congested with detail. A house cat is ”immense, squarish and orange, resembling a suitcase, his tail a broken strap.” An obese elderly woman has ”skin like a slipcover over a rump-sprung sofa.” Proulx can blast light into every corner of a scene; she seems to see with extra pairs of eyes. String together 381 pages of these visions; throw in a little magic realism, some melodrama, and a stylistic trick or two — Proulx is exceptionally fond of suddenly leaping forward several decades to reveal, in parentheses, the grisly details of someone’s death — and you have a virtuoso performance.
What you don’t have is a novel. The difference between The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes is the difference between a fine book and one that’s so bent on being a masterpiece that it fails to tell a story. Forget about the accordion, a literal groaner of a linking device that wears out its welcome around the time a Mexican musician leaves it in the back of a Minneapolis taxicab. Proulx’s goal is to find something emblematic in the travails of first- and second-generation Americans, and she brings extraordinary clarity of insight into their particular woes. The best of these stories (say, three out of eight) create an enthralling hybrid of family history and imaginative fiction, in images no other writer has discovered. (And language no other writer has discovered; keep your dictionary handy unless words like mephitic, flerried, and lunty are in your vocabulary.)
For all its technical mastery, though, Accordion Crimes is destined to take up permanent residence at the swampy bottom of many a beach bag this summer. The America that greets its new arrivals is a relentlessly racist and embittering land, and Proulx’s vision isn’t particularly generous to the huddled masses she’s writing about. Among the ill fates suffered by Accordion Crimes’ characters are death by trichinosis, self-decapitation, drowning, plutonium poisoning, choking, stabbing, and electrocution by worm probe.
There’s something sour and dogmatic about a novel that allows so few of its humans to act humanly, then takes pleasure in dispatching them in the most arcane, ”can you top this?” ways. Joy, kindness, and generosity aren’t part of Proulx’s landscape here, and their exclusion comes to seem strident. None of Proulx’s characters are allowed to take up too much space or emotion, lest their tiny places on her vast canvas of misery become too important. Accordion Crimes offers plenty of brushwork to admire — but the big picture turns out to be surprisingly small-spirited. B-