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Dark Journeys Linked by the Sound of Music : FICTION : ACCORDION CRIMES, By E. Annie Proulx (Scribner's: $25; 381 pp.)

June 23, 1996|Ellen Akins | Ellen Akins' most recent books are the novels "Public Life" and "Little Woman" and a collection of stories, "World Like a Knife."

E. Annie Proulx does not repeat herself, which could be a curse, since every book she writes will not be "The Shipping News"--a novel so widely read and well-loved that it would be tough to follow. But tough is Proulx's strong suit and, as it turns out, the curse of repetition is for other writers--those with but one or two puny stories to tell in the same old long-suffering style. What might fill another writer's novel is dispatched in a page or two by Proulx in her new book, "Accordion Crimes," and nothing is slighted in the process.

The plot, such as it is, follows the fortunes of an accordion through the lives of those into whose hands it passes--and a remarkable and varied lot of lives that is. Sounds like a gimmick? Yes, but the theme is handled so well and ultimately becomes so irrelevant, let's just call it a device and be done with it. What Proulx is really after here--by way of the little green, two-row button accordion's passage from person to person and place to place--is an anecdotal history of immigration and prejudice in 20th century America. Despite the bright light of the author's wit and her transcendent rendering of music in prose, it's a long, dark story.

"Accordion Crimes" begins with the instrument's maker in Sicily around the turn of the century and moves with him and his young son to "La Merica," the land of opportunity, where he dreams of one day opening a music store. Chance and a deceptive fellow traveler divert him from his intended destination, New York, to New Orleans, where he finds foul accommodations and backbreaking work. Just as he's finally managed to wangle his first commission for making an accordion, the victim to mob violence immigrant falls fueled by anti-Italian hatred.

Goodbye Louisiana and hello Iowa! After a string of events, the green accordion turns up again, this time in the company of three German homesteaders. They're a bit luckier than the accordion maker, but not for long. In the land of opportunity, everyone's got someone to hate, and the Kaiser's warmongering leading up to World War I ensures that it will be the Germans this time.

The accordion next turns up with Mexicans in Texas, French Canadians in Maine, Cajuns on the Gulf of Mexico and descendants of African slaves from Vanilla, Miss., to Chicago. Then it turns up with a Pole, a Basque and a Norwegian. And every hard-luck story is drawn with such a profligacy of detail as to make Dickens look restrained.

Proulx isn't content to tell us, for instance, about a peripheral character's extracurricular success, a photograph featured on the cover of Life magazine. She also tells us that the student at the bottom of the human crush in the famous photo of a phone booth is a pole-vaulter. It's not enough that we know every piece of furniture collected for resale by another character; we learn that among the desks are many drawers that have been clawed by the nails of executives listening to bad news on the telephone. People come and go, but never without a quick, parenthetical account of what's in store for them. And then there are the lists--of diseases, small towns, colors of horses, symptoms, purchases, furnishings.

None of this is necessary, but it adds up to an overwhelming verisimilitude, the sense of a crowded and particular reality that these characters inhabit. As stringently unsentimental as Proulx is, she nonetheless evokes an odd pathos--an elegiac feeling for an expansive idea of America frittered away in a million petty ways.

What's beautiful, though--and what lifts this book above a grim documentary of sad lives, quashed dreams and lost identities--is the music in it. Here, Octave the Cajun plays zydeco for a dancing crowd: "His fingers raced and hit, trills and violent tremolo, the notes vibrating with the force of his upward lunges, a left-hand trill going on and on and the heel of his right hand knocking hard and quick against a mass of buttons, a jam of close notes, discord that pulled yells from the dancers and then a sudden stop leaving everybody panting and laughing, and then--it's a trick, folks--right back into it again."

A fiddler in Montmagny, Canada, draws from his instrument a "sound like a flock of birds, a flight of arrows striking all around him, from a growling, clenched-teeth mutter on the G and D strings to harmonic shrieks and stair-tumbling runs." Beyond these moments, there is the music Proulx makes of her many voices, from the Sicilian to the Southerner, the logger to the rancher, the Mexican patriarch to the Polish grandmother, all sounded with perfect pitch.

"They say music cures crime," one character observes along the way. Of course, it doesn't. But it does suggest a larger, more generous soul--one unsullied by the long history of criminal acts and American life so painstakingly described in "Accordion Crimes."

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