E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes traces the origins of the United States through the narratives of a series of families, whose stories are all bound together by a green button accordion. Proulx describes the accordion’s origins in Sicily and charts its travels to New Orleans and beyond through the hands of other generations – black, white, French, German, Mexican, Polish – showing the disparate backgrounds of each but connecting them all through the instrument’s versatility to their various musical styles.
Angry, illuminating and superbly written, Accordion Crimes is nevertheless a difficult and sometimes exhausting read. Despite their dreams of making it on the gold-paved streets of “La Merica”, the protagonists’ lives are often embittered and traumatic, and their deaths are usually characterized by violence, waste and injustice. The novel lacks the sense of redemption and much of the humor of The Shipping News, and its abbreviated style means that the reader can’t feel the intimacy with the characters that Proulx generates in some of her previous work. Proulx also spends long periods chronicling the everyday life and speech of her characters, to no obvious end other than to show their gradual Americanization – an approach that can stagnate the narrative and leave the non-US reader somewhat cold.
Accordion Crimes shows in brutal detail the prejudice and poverty endured by America’s minority communities and acknowledges the individual contribution of various nationalities to the social fabric of the modern United States – from the music and song of the French and Sicilians to the farming techniques and railroad toil of the Germans. Proulx shows how the mere existence of each nationality has been erased from modern American memory, illustrating the slandering of the Sicilians as criminals and mobsters and the changing of German families’ names due to fear of persecution. Many identities are subsumed into a broader American culture as a result, echoing the theme of lost history raised by Toni Morrison, who explored the repression of black identity in Beloved.
Accordion Crimes is a genuinely important book: arguably, it has more to say about American society than much-heralded works such as The Great Gatsby and White Noise. Proulx, consciously or otherwise, has made a worthy attempt at writing the Great American Novel.