Prolux's 'Accordion': Allegory? Reallism?

June 02, 1996|By Dorothea Straus | Dorothea Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Accordion Crimes," by E. Annie Proulx. New York: Scribner. 381 pages. $25.

In our time, when confessional memories and autobiographical fiction are the vogue, E. Annie Proulx, a powerfully omniscient author, is an excepiton. "Accordion Crimes" is a collection of takes on the immigrant experience of the 20th century. The novel, unchronological, opens in Sicily in 1890. The handcrafted green accordion originates there and is transported to New Orleans, where its maker, a Sicilian laborer, meets a violent death. His young son survives him for a few months, and upon his demise, the accordion turns up in South Dakota, the possession of a German family, followed by Mexicans in Texas, French in Maine (via Quebec), Poles in Chicago, Norwegians in Minnesota. The instrument is rescued from pawnshops, junk heaps, passed from hand to hand, battered and patched, but, somehow, still playable. Its route is haphazard but serves as a link between the various disconnected ethnic groups.

E. Annie Proulx casts a cold eye upon the desolate landscape she describes with so much skill. "Hail as large as teacups, misshapen like baroque pearls, pounded cornfields into pulp and bruised the stock. Children drowned in the Little Runt, were lost in the forests of corn."

The author's spirit is independent and she espouses no societal panaceas, neither the melting pot" nor self-conscious "separatism." Her immigrants are moved by the instinctive, murderous law of the jungle, specie against species.

It is difficult to determine whether the new arrivals have been brutalized by the harsh land or whether they have created the ugliness of their surroundings, where poverty appears more tawdry than in their native countries. Dumping grounds, run-down motels, stale tins of food, and bent, synthetic objects mirror the endangered squalor of the victims themselves and their distorted lives, in which violence is commonplace. In this world there are no "happy endings," yet throughout the book Proulx's prose maintains its dynamic pulse. And one marvels at her ear for ethnic dialogue, her acute observations.

NTC "Messmacher [a German] was first to walk along the warped boardwalk peering into buildings through broken windows. Meager and hard of frame, he understood farming and carpentry. His swarthy face was dished as though a cow had stepped on it when he was a child, and his lipless mouth, thatched by a mustard-colored mustache, was framed in curved ice-tongue lines. A beard of darker color, like an unraveled braid, hung from his chin."

"Accordion Crimes" is sui generis, but for the large public that applauded the preceding novel, "The Shipping News," the offstage voice of Annie Proulx is recognizable. But "The Shipping News" has a protagonist, a grotesque, also, in his own fashion, but he is someone who evolves, with whom one evolves, with whom one feels empathy, while "Accordion Crimes" is delivered in sharp, telling blows through swift glimpses of emotional and physical suffering. And the mosaic of characters inspire less pity in the reader than awestruck horror, as before a natural disaster, flood, fire or earthquake.

The reappearance throughout of "Old Green," the accordion, remains a puzzle. Is it merely a stylistic contrivance or does the author have some faith in the magic of folk music to alleviate, briefly, the pain of human existence? Is "Accordion Crimes" an American allegory or an example of extreme realism? The faint of heart will claim the former.

Dorothea Straus is the author of six books, among them "Virgins and Other Species," and " Under the Canopy." She was publisher of Harpers Bazaar and the Partisan Review.

Pub date: 6/02/96

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