Accordion Crimes opens in 1890 in Sicily as an accordion maker completes his finest instrument - nineteen polished bone buttons, sleek lacquer - and dreams of owning a music store in America. He and his eleven-year-old son, carrying little more than the green accordion, voyage to the teeming, violent port of New Orleans. Within a year, the accordion maker is murdered by an anti-Italian lynching mob, but his instrument carries Proulx's story into another community of immigrants, the German Americans, founding a town in Iowa. Again, the accordion is witness to an astonishing array of tales as Beutle, Messermacher, Loats and their families make and lose fortunes in the new land. The little green accordion falls into the hands of various immigrants who carry it from Iowa to Texas, from Maine to Louisiana, looking for a decent life. Descendants of Mexicans, Africans, Poles, Germans, Norwegians, Irish, Basques and Franco-Canadians, they work their way into a harshly racist American culture at the cost of their identity, language and traditions. The music of the accordion is their last link with the past - voice for their fantasies, sorrows and exuberance - but it, too, is forced to change.
She certainly knows a lot about accordian music, but I should hate to be trapped in a railway carriage with her talking on the subject. She has a compulsion to lists, which are paraded before you, the writing is a bit like a stream of consciousness.
I wondered whether she was really going for a sort of black humour, a subtitle could be "99 horrible ways to die violently", but surely life isn't really this bad, even in the USA?
For those familiar with The Shipping News, Proulx’s style in this book is very different, although she has the same way of looking at the lives of ordinary people, viewing them at an angle that illuminates the oddities of their personalities, the traits and habits that set them apart from others. But in the former book, her prose style was very often abrupt, with short or part sentences that were as jarring as the landscape of Newfoundland. Accordion Crimes, on the other hand, is written with long, long sentences, many times filled with bizarre lists that illustrate the person or the era she is describing:
“He listened to the radio, it was better than the TV late at night, the distant hillbilly music and sermons and promises of cures from the wildcat border stations down in Mexico—funny their signal could reach all the way to Maine—offers for weight-loss tonics, pills to make you put on pounds, plastic broncos, moon pens, zircon rings, Yellow Boy fishing lures, apron patterns, twelve styles for just one dollar, rat killer and polystyrene gravestones, send no money, send your name and address in care of this station, less than a penny a capsule, for each order received before December 15 you’ll receive in addition, absolutely free, while this special offer lasts, insist on the genuine, prosperity, plain brown sealed wrapper, a package containing rigidly inspected pharmaceuticals, if you are nervous and wakeful at night.”
Food, as in The Shipping News, makes its odd appearance from time to time:
"Every morning Mrs. Pelky labored to his door on her bad ankles with a plate of curious cookery: Orange Buds, Pork Fruit Cake, Deviled Clams and Bean Mash, Lentil Loaf, or The poor Man’s Omelet—bread sopped in hot milk…..He ate everything she brought him for it was better than his own strange combinations, a peach and kale sandwich, macaroni and vinegar, canned salmon and rat cheese."
You have to wonder about Proulx’s own attitude towards food.
The book is sectioned in parts according to whoever the current owner, a member of a different ethnic group, is. Each part is broken up into many different titled subsection--The Pulp Truck, A Smell of Burning, Prank, Inspection-- sequences of events in the lives of the characters, allowing a narrative that doesn’t have to be absolutely continuous in order to run smoothly. It’s very effective.
While I loved the book overall and marveled at Proulx’s ability to find the bizarre in even the most ordinary of human lives, towards the end the long, long sentences started to wear me out. I found that I was skipping over them half-way through, anxious to get to the end and on to the next thought. I slowed down my reading rate, and that helped.
The end of the book is as bizarre as the rest of the story. Proulx is nothing if not consistent.
I really enjoyed the first few stories here, but I just eventually got tired of it and was ready for the book to be over. I can't say exactly what it was that put me off - maybe it was the general bleakness of everything. She would here and there insert snippets - just a sentence or two - about what would later happen to a character, and it always ended badly for everyone.
While it's true that it pretty much always does end badly for everyone in reality, that doesn't mean that everything before the end is bleak and sad or that the sum of it all is despair. We'll all eventually die and death is usually horrible (the only way that it isn't is if it is quick, and then it is usually pretty horrible for that person's loved ones), and we'll all also be bad people at some point ; we'll do bad things and we'll say bad things, we'll hurt the people that we love, etc. But, the whole life of a person isn't sad (at least not all people), but in Accordion Crimes it always seemed like the message - over and over - was it all turns to shit, so don't bother.
That turned me off. The books was fairly good - writing was excellent and the characters were well drawn, it was just too bleak for me in this part of my life.
The end of the novel is funny. It's a really sad ending, but at the same time it's a very happy ending.
An interesting juxtaposition with Adverbs, the last book I read. There the stories interlocked to explore the nature of love. Here the stories interlocked to explore the nature of tragedy. Yet the book was somehow enjoyable, because the tragedy was so picturesque and keenly delineated.
Full of fascinating historical detail and excellent characters, but all of them meet untimely ends of one sort or another and it cannot be described as uplifting. Also required me to reach for the dictionary on a few occasions - not a bad thing per se, but not something I've had to do with a novel for a long time.
But this is excellent writing and well-crafted story-telling and, though it may require persistence - it did from me - it's ultimately worth it.
I actually listened to this book on a cassette tape when I was on a cross country road trip. I highly recommend the experience, since the actors are able to truly capture the different accents and capture an authentic sense of place.
This novel is a collection of stories that covered a lot of time in America and a lot of the American immigrant experience connected by the life span of a green accordion. From it’s trip here to this country until its demise many years later throughout all of its many owners, showing their vast and frequently tragic experiences while they were in possession of the accordion, even if they did nothing with it.
If you don’t enjoy a collection of stories that are only very loosely connected and find it a confusing thing to keep track of with so very many characters coming in and out of the book, you may not like this story. That is probably the number one complaint that I read in other reviews. That, and Ms. Proulx’s love of long sentences full of lists. Personally, I read every single word. I savored every sentence. I am a fan. And I found the end? Fitting and satisfying.
The fact that the sections are so disconnected - you know they are going to end soon anyway - and that Proulx makes most of her characters so unlikeable, means that you don't really become invested in what happens to the people in the story (let alone the accordion, after a while). I do see where she was going with the book, though, and the perspective of all the immigrants is very, very interesting. There are certain rather sad themes running throughout the book, such as every ethnic group's firm belief in its own superiority and consequent treatment of all the others which is just as xenophobic as its own reception by the American "mainstream" (whatever that might be, after all). I guess these points could have been made in a much shorter novel, though. Unfortunately, a lot of the time I got the feeling that the story was just a vehicle for the writer to show off all the (undoubtedly excruciatingly painstaking) research she had done.
My thoughts: From the very first pages, I was enchanted with the writing of E. Annie Proulx. I vaguely recall reading Close Range in college, but I can't remember if I even liked her writing or stories. I'll remember her now. The downside to my love of her writing was her brilliant characterization, as I didn't realize when I started this book that it was a series of (long) short stories. When the first story came to an end, I was devastated. In some ways, the book never quite recovered for me. Despite the significance of the accordion to both the characters and stories, the accordion was perhaps my least favorite aspect of this novel. As a narrative device, it worked beautifully. I loved the idea of an object passing through the lives and hands of different people, and most of the transitions were intriguing.
To fault Proulx for being disappointed with this book because I was expecting a novel is unfair. I like to know as little as possible before reading books that come highly recommended (or appear on prize lists). While Accordion Crimes is beautifully written and features several engaging stories, I failed to emotionally connect with some of them. As is so often the case for me as a reader, I enjoyed the first story best. When it ended, I was sad and struggled most with the second story. Once I got a sense of her overarching goals and structure, I was drawn into most of the other stories, but none captured the same spark as the first one.
Favorite passage: "...for he conducted his life as everyone does--by guessing at the future."
The verdict: While the writing was gorgeous, the stories didn’t come together enough for me. Ultimately, it didn’t feel like a novel, despite the strong thematic elements. While I’ll eagerly read Proulx again, next time I’ll try a novel.
I have loved and admired the work of Annie Proulx since I first read The Shipping News when it first came out in 1993. Since then I have read her collections of stories, That Old Ace in the Hole, and the delicious Bird Cloud. Accordion Crimes was the next on my list, and for the first time, I was really disappointed.
This novel relates the story of a home-made accordion that travels from place to place and owner to owner. The story had gaps in some of the movement of the instrument, which I found a bit confusing. But the worst flaw was the characters. I simply could not connect -- much less care about any of them. Several times I flirted with invoking my “Rule of 50,” but I did not want to give up on Annie. Finally, nearly half way through and another cast of thin, cardboard characters introduced, I called it quits. I have a couple of other of Proulx’s works, so after those I may come back and give it another try.
Nobody is perfect, but before Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx was really close. If you have read it, and have a different take on this novel, I would love to hear from you.
This is probably one of the most complicated stories we've read for my library book club. The one story is essentially eight longish short stories detailing the lives of many characters, moving back and forth in time to tell individual's stories, all the while the accordion features in some way, small or large, sweeping through almost a century. There are moments of humor, but most of the tale is bleak and does not shy away from horrors of death or reversals of fortune. By the end, I was bracing myself for the next awful thing to happen. The writing is lovely, descriptive, and keeps you reading at a slower pace pondering these characters and their lives. WE will have plenty to discuss from the immigrant experience to the power of music to the intricacies of the plot.