The novels of E. Annie Proulx show life at its most heartbreaking. Her characters are frustrated, betrayed, and tormented; their hopes and their very survival are jeopardized by the forces of nature and by human malevolence. In Postcards (1992), Proulx shows how a family virtually destroys itself because the family members are incapable of forgetting old injuries; in The Shipping News (1993), she demonstrates how individuals are imperiled not only by human selfishness and irresponsibility but also by the unpredictable and unforgiving ocean on which these islanders must depend for their very existence. Although profound in their thematic implications, both of these earlier novels are limited in scope, the first, because though the action covers a fairly long period, it involves a single family, and the second, because it is the story of a brief period in the life of one protagonist, who lives in a small and close-knit community.
Accordion Crimes is very different from the author’s earlier works. With its huge cast of characters, its dizzying changes in setting, and its hundred-year time span, it has the complexity, as well as the episodic quality, of an epic. There is no epic hero or heroine, however, to unify the work. The protagonist of Accordion Crimes is a green accordion, and each of the eight chapters in the book is presented as a separate installment in the accordion’s adventuresome life.
Appropriately, the novel begins with the birth of the protagonist. That important event takes place in Sicily. Its creator is a man who is never named, but identified only as the accordion maker. When this craftsman and his son Silvano start on their way to New York, where they intend to settle, open a music store, and make their fortunes, the accordion accompanies them. Fate intervenes, however, as it does so often in this novel. On the train to Palermo, a stranger persuades the pair that New Orleans would be a better place for their venture. As a result of this conversation, the Sicilians alter their plans and take a ship for New Orleans. The consequences are far from happy. When an anti- Italian mob sweeps into a bar where the Sicilians sometimes stop to socialize and to play the music of their native country, the accordion maker is dragged out and beaten to death. Silvano survives, but as a diminished person. Blaming his father’s death on his slowness in becoming assimilated, Silvano changes his own name to Bob Joe and sets about to forget his Sicilian heritage.
Although Silvano has no further interest in the accordion, fortunately it is rescued by Polio, an African American friend of the accordion maker who on occasion had borrowed the instrument to try out some of his own songs on it. Shortly after acquiring the accordion, however, Polio is killed by another blackman, whose only interest in the instrument is to make a profit by selling it. He takes the accordion up the Mississippi River, and it ends up as the property of Hans Beutle, a German immigrant, who has settled in Iowa but still recalls with nostalgia the beer-halls and the polkas of his homeland. After his death, the accordion passes into the hands of Abelardo Relámpago Salazar, a Texan. Salazar naïvely assumes that his sons will share his enthusiasm for the traditional music of his Mexican forebears. Unfortunately, they do not. Almost as if it were fated, one of them manages to lose the accordion.
The green accordion now appears in Maine, its owner a French Canadian, Dolor Gagnon. Its next home is with Buddy Malefoot, a Louisiana Cajun. Before long it has been taken to Chicago by an African American musician, Octave, who plans to heat up the frigid North with his Louisiana zydeco. Eventually the accordion becomes the property of two Polish musicians, Joey and Florry Newcomer. Later, in Montana, it warms the hearts of the Irish ranch hand Fay McGettigan and his Basque friend Javier.
Although by now it has outlasted a dozen owners, the green accordion is not immortal. It can live on only as long as some individual values it and cherishes it, and inevitably, there comes a time when no one can come to its rescue. The young children who spy it on a trash pile in Mississippi see no purpose for it except as something they can destroy. They pitch it onto the highway to watch it be crushed by an eighteen-wheeler.
In a world where it seems so much easier to destroy than to create, it is amazing that the green accordion lasted as long as it did. Certainly it fared much better than its owners. Beginning with the accordion maker himself, who thought he was making such a wise decision in changing his destination, Proulx’s characters seem to rush toward disaster, as if driven by a malevolent fate. Hans Beutle survives all sorts of dangers, only to die of...