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In E. Annie Proulx’s latest novel, America is a Tower of Babel where people of various nationalities would rather preserve their differences. Irish dock workers detest Italian newcomers, German farmers spar with their Irish neighbors, Mexicans insult Native Americans, and Polish musicians mistrust the descendants of African slaves. But despite the rancor that passes between them, the ethnic groups share an affection for one thing: the accordion. Specifically, a handmade, green, two-row button accordion that is stolen, bought, lost, found, pawned, and rescued from a flea market over the course of the 20th century.

Accordion Crimes follows this fateful instrument from its craftsman’s home, Sicily, to the port of New Orleans in 1890, then throughout the United States. In each of eight interrelated segments, a set of immigrants or first-generation Americans acquires the instrument and dedicates it to playing traditional forms of music. Unaware that a Sicilian built the green accordion, a German brags that his ancestors were the best of all musicians; later, a French-Canadian makes the same boast of his countrymen. What emerges is a paradoxical sense of common ground among bitter rivals, based on the idea that the accordion can sing in any language. But this is no saga of patriotism and unity. Proulx—who mastered bleak hilarity in her Pulitzer-winning The Shipping News—would never be so sentimental. She believes in a melting pot, but one of boiling anger and scalding humor.

The accordion is Proulx’s wry way of handling the American dream. To the immigrants’ eyes and ears (at first, anyway), the accordion is a majestic piece of equipment. Successive generations pin their expectations of greatness on the awkward instrument, imagining a nationwide revival of jigs, polkas, or tangos. They never consider that the accordion is as far out of touch with modernity as the harpsichord. Their love of homeland, expressed in the accordion’s trills and wheezes, cancels out any reservations they might have about their music’s narrow appeal.

But after years of struggling, Proulx’s characters inevitably leave the accordion behind. Usually, they do this by dying. Accordion Crimes’ title and opening chapters promote the idea that the green accordion is cursed, and that anyone who owns it is doomed. No one linked to the instrument succumbs to old age or wastes away from a long illness. The accordion’s maker and several other Italians are lynched by an Irish mob in a scene Proulx borrowed from an actual 1891 event in Louisiana. Another of the accordion’s masters goes out playing “‘Pícame Araña’ as no one has ever played it,” and hallucinating from the poisonous bites of a brown spider. And in one of Proulx’s grimly comic parentheticals, unrelated to the central story but inserted into the text as if too good to omit, bad luck befalls a man who “moved heaven and earth, hired private investigators, to find the old green accordion his grandfather played”:

Wasn’t it Rawley who…in the West Thumb Geyser Basin, dropped a roll of film, trod on it, lost his balance and fell headlong into a seething hot spring, and despite eyes parboiled blind and the knowledge of impending death, clambered out—leaving the skin of his hands like red gloves on the stony edge—only to fall into another, hotter pool? You bet.

Proulx provokes uncomfortable laughter and laces her jokes with a mortal threat. She takes special pride in thinking of ways to off her characters, and their terrible fates are Crimes’ most memorable aspect. Every chapter has the same downward momentum toward disillusionment, but one consolation is that the book means to capture the fleeting, unsympathetic nature of time; no character sticks around quite long enough for the reader to get attached. Things happen fast, and not just to human beings. In a segment about bayou accordionists, Proulx sums up her philosophy in two uncomplicated sentences: “The yellow cat was nine years old and had not spent one of his lives. But, as sometimes is the case, he had to pay up everything in full in a few brief moments.”

At the very point where every accident can be attributed to predestination or an evil spell, however, the accordion’s deadly potency mellows. Miraculously, people take up the accordion but survive their less-than-ideal marriages, their kitschy careers as polka musicians, or their raising of average children. Sometimes Proulx divulges their ends in one of those snappy parentheticals, but just as often she casually picks up the trail of another character. Years pass, and the accordion’s power, like the characters’ ethnicity, is diluted.

All this is intentional, of course. The accordion is more a symbolic artifact than a functional item. As it gets damp, dries out, cracks, and is clumsily repaired with duct tape, it loses its ability to make a tuneful noise. At the same time, the characters stop noticing its historical relevance and see it as a bargain-bin novelty item. They become American citizens.

As if to demonstrate the Americanization process, Félida, an accordion virtuoso born of a Texan mother and Mexican father, meets her Italian husband at a Polish wedding. She and her conjunto-playing brother debate ethnic purity and hold a spontaneous dueling-accordions showdown, but Proulx suggests that coming generations won’t behave so passionately. Meanwhile, other characters renounce their roots by choosing new names. The accordion maker’s son settles on “Bob Joe”; French-Canadian Dolor Gagnon becomes “Frank”; and German Karl Messermacher starts calling himself “Charlie Sharp.”

Each immigrant experience mirrors the others, from the old-country nostalgia to the accordion playing to the name changes. In fact, Accordion Crimes includes so many similar circumstances that its progression becomes mechanical. Like a short-story collection, the novel is too easy to put down between chapters; readers need time to recharge before moving on to another family tree (and another round of colorful deaths). Part of the beauty of The Shipping News was its leisurely focus on one small town, which left readers feeling that they’d really spent an icy winter on the coast of Newfoundland. Proulx’s fiction just doesn’t seem as delightful when she’s hopping from city to city, from family to family, at a sprint.

Yet the author’s language amazes. Two brothers “were as close as fingernails and flesh,” a reckless blind man “invited tattoo artists to ‘do what you want,’” and a child “grew up in fear of his father’s insensate rages, ricocheted from slaps and screams in the barn to gingersnaps and cream in the kitchen.” And in spite of its purposeful repetition, Accordion Crimes is not without suspense. Early in the book, a character glues 14 ill-gotten $1,000 bills inside the bellows. Even if the instrument loses its historical value, Proulx cynically suggests, it will have the sort of value true Americans can respect. In the chapters that follow, the accordion waits for the caring owner who will take it apart for repairs and discover the loot. Just bear in mind that irony is Proulx’s favorite tool, with frontier justice running a close second.CP