Lady Of Pain

PITY THE POOR ACCORDION. DESPITE an illustrious and astonishingly varied history, it is the one musical instrument that is guaranteed to make people roll their eyes. Sometimes it seems as if it had been invented less to make music than to serve as the butt of jokes. (What's the show-business definition of an optimist? An accordion player with a beeper.) But wipe off those sneers. E. Annie Proulx is the accordion's new best friend, and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "The Shipping News" is determined to see that it gets the respect it deserves. In her latest novel, _B_Accordion Crimes_b_ (381 pages. Scribner. $25), she makes a little green squeezebox the narrative's unifying device. From the hands of its Italian-immigrant maker it passes to a band of German-Americans, then to a TexMex family, a Cajun and so on. Ah, if this accordion could talk, what tales it could tell-why, the history of immigrant America in the 20th century.

What is astonishing is that Proulx takes this cornball conceit and almost makes it work. A slicker, hipper writer would never deign to build a novel around such an unsophisticated trope. But Proulx did not win her Pulitzer or her National Book Award or her hundreds of thousands of readers by trying to be fashionable. She writes about life's losers-fumblers and misfits who don't have a clue-but while she is compassionate, she can be every bit as merciless and flinty-eyed as Flannery O'Connor. Poor fools are still fools in her books.

It's easy to see how the accordion might appeal to her as a literary device. This object of scorn is most often played by people who are also scorned, for the way they talk, dress and act. The ugliest aspect of the melting-pot ideal is senseless conformity, and Proulx clearly believes that losing one's accent or one's taste for polka parties is tantamount to losing one's identity. It's a sharp idea. Unfortunately, good novels are driven less by ideas than by people and storytelling. "Accordion Crimes" is a book with no unifying narrative drive. The chapters are meant to work as separate stories, but that's all they are, a collection of stories.

A couple of them are excellent. In "Spider, Bite Me," the TexMex chapter, patriarchy and male chauvinism poison a family's musical harmony. In "Hit Hard and Gone Down," polka music just barely keeps a Polish-American family together even as their racism is wrecking their sense of community. In these beguiling stories, Proulx throws away her program and lets things happen as they will. The results are a little messy, but terribly, genuinely sad.

"Accordion Crimes" sometimes seems like the work of two very different writers. One is fond of such portentous statements as "the future was crouching at a dark side road on the path of events." The other is sharp-eyed and dour and funny as bell. This is the Proulx to root for. She's the writer who makes a running joke out of killing off minor characters between parentheses in a variety of oddball ways. She's the language lover who stocks an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico with characters named Coodermonce, Cuddermash, Cuttermarsh, Coudemoche, Cordeminch and Gartermatch, "all variations on the original name, Courtemanche." And she's the self-parodying author who describes a poster in a storefront window that reads, "Enjoying life? You'll REALLY enjoy it with an accordion!" There is enough of this Proulx in "Accordion Crimes" to make it worth reading, but not enough to make it great.

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