Like the outdated musical instrument it celebrates, E. Annie Proulx's ambitious new novel -- the follow-up to her wildly (almost flukily) successful "The Shipping News" -- makes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 dictionaries, 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 "Accordion Crimes," an earnest and dazzling book that leaves a slight chill in the air.