Let me start by saying that Accordion Crimes, by E. Annie Proulx (1996), is beautifully written. The exquisite level of detail, the masterful evocation of time and place with only a few strokes of the authorial brush, the perfect balance between dialect and standard English in the voices of the characters: all these things are strong cases for why Proulx is such a wonderful writer. She’s a master of the craft. She also spent a lot of time learning about accordions or she plays the accordion herself. Either way, she knows a lot about how they’re constructed, how they’re played, how the different types of accordions are distinguished from each other. I was impressed by the breadth of her knowledge.
But I didn’t enjoy reading the book.
The novel is really a series of snippets from the lives of many characters, all of whom are tied together by the accordion. Several accordions appear in the narrative, but one in particular reappears throughout the stories (the “little green accordion”). The accordion comes to the US with the Italian immigrant who made it, and subsequently makes its way all around the continent, encountering all kinds of people along the way. The first story is set in the late 19th century and the book ends in probably the 1980s (I say probably because it’s not explicitly dated, but context clues allow me to guess).
I was really looking forward to reading this because I really liked Proulx’s The Shipping News, and of course she wrote the lovely and stark short story Brokeback Mountain. I also really like the accordion, so it seemed like a winning situation. But it wasn’t.
I’ve been trying to understand what I disliked about this story. Obviously it wasn’t the writing, but rather the stories themselves. I think that ultimately I disliked the fact that this novel seemed like one long litany of misery. Every single character in the book is miserable in one way or another. They inhabit their misery like a comfortable sweatshirt, and Proulx seems to take a perverse pleasure in reveling in the details of all their miserable lives. The squalid homes, the abject poverty, the tortured interpersonal relationships are produced in almost photographic detail in her prose.
It reminded me (only slightly, though) of the relish with which Upton Sinclair wrote the most awful passages in The Jungle, though without his smug moral rightness. In fact, Accordion Crimes was much more like an anthropologist’s obvious enjoyment in writing an obsessively “objective” account of some terrible practice like female circumcision. Exquisite detail takes the place of the anthropologist allowing herself to obviously revel in the squalor or violence.
For example, in one story, a man has suffered brain damage and is verbally abusive to his wife and physically abusive to his children, hates his life as a farmer, but is unable to pursue the work he likes because of the injury to his brain. One day a traveling snake-handling preacher sets up shop near the man’s farm. On the night that the preacher convinces one of the man’s children to play a role in the “healing” part of a church service, the man discovers the child’s involvement. He beats the boy nearly to death with a piece of metal cable, exposing the child’s vertebrae. The child’s mother is unable to stop him, and so she tries to kill the man by braining him with a piece of pipe. The man and child survive, but twenty years later, when the wife is on her deathbed from cancer, the man gets his revenge by killing her with an axe.
And all of the stories are like that. If they’re not physically violent, the characters are emotionally stunted, verbally abusive to everyone around. Several characters commit suicide, one dies when a load of lumber crushes his body, another dies in agony from brown recluse bites.
I wondered what purpose it could possibly serve, to portray so many people in such an unflattering light. I thought it might be a Statement on the Immigration Question because so many of the characters are either immigrants or are descended from immigrants. But others are not immigrants, so that theory doesn’t hold water.
Proulx didn’t disappoint me with her writing, rather I was further amazed by what a great writer she is. But reading this book was not enjoyable for me. Recommended if you have a high tolerance for other people’s misery, or if you’re a huge Annie Proulx fan.