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A Very Bad Marriage

Tunes of the victims of our melting pot myth?

Accordion Crimes
By E. Annie Proulx
Scriber; $25; 381 pp.

Reviewed by Suzanne Baker

THE MELTING POT--it's our society's favorite assimilation theory, one we carelessly represent. We rarely think about the stories, the human processes that have helped define what it means to be an American. In her latest novel, Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx embroiders these stories over the bare bones of historical fact. In a series of unsentimental and densely descriptive vignettes, she relates the painful process of becoming wed to America--and it is not a happy union.

The book follows a green accordion over the span of 100 years, as it passes through the hands of numerous immigrant families and bears witness to their sordid process of Americanization. The story begins in 1890. Heady with the notion of owning a music shop, a proud Sicilian accordion-maker brings his young son and his handcrafted green accordion--with its mirrored eyes and polished bone buttons--to a teeming port in New Orleans. They soon find themselves living on Mirage Street, a degenerate avenue "lined with decayed French mansions shedding flerried slates like dandruff, the fine rooms chopped into cubbies, thin strips of deal bisecting plaster cherubs, a ballroom partitioned into twenty mean kennels."

The hapless Sicilian's dreams of cashing in on the American Dream, spiritually and financially, bite the dust when he is hanged by an anti-Italian mob. The green accordion is snatched from the barroom floor by Apollo, an African American dock worker, and so begins the instrument's fateful journey through the lives of Proulx's fascinatingly unlikable characters.

A symbol of ethnic identity, the accordion moves from Louisiana to Iowa, Texas to Maine, becoming increasingly battered and unappreciated. Creoles, Germans, Poles, Mexicans, Norwegians, Irish, Basques and Franco-Canadians all find their voice in the bawling instrument, squeezing their laments through its goat-skin bellows.

Like all the themes in Accordion Crimes, prejudice is borne out in descriptions of music. The Sicilian accordion maker calls the early blues that he hears in the New Orleans bars "kitchen music." He "disliked the music that the black men played, confused music, the melody, if there was one, deliberately hidden in braided skeins of rhythm." Merciless racism is seen as an integral part of the immigrant experience, as ethnic pride makes its infamous segue into intolerance.

Contemptible characters people Proulx's sketches--brutish men, timid women, physically and emotionally battered children who meet bizarre and often comic ends in order to pass on the accordion to the next set of immigrants.

Some might be frustrated by Accordion Crimes' lack of narrative flow and abrupt abandonment of characters as the accordion changes hands, but the book isn't meant to be a conventional novel. It's more like yarns being spun around a dozen fires. And Proulx's storytelling--dense, immaculately rich, powerful and funny--itself makes the novel worth reading.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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