Patchwork tales from the New World

E. Annie Proulx's characters perform like figures in a set-dance. Clare Boylan is intrigued but not drawn in
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Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx, Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99

Cyril Connolly once said that the American language was in a state of flux based on the survival of the unfittest. In her new novel E. Annie Proulx has made a savage comic poetry out of that bastard tongue, following the fortunes of the unfittest, from their arrival to their endurance or otherwise in the New World. Foul-mouthed, bawdy and heroic, her immigrants don't so much survive as get mashed into the great hamburger.

The characters are linked by a little green accordion, made by a poor Sicilian farmer. He dreams of a new life in La Merica, "fresh and unused...of money hanging in the future like pears hidden in high leaves." Instead he arrives in a New Orleans which Proulx paints as a fly-crawling, mosquito- ridden vision of hell: "A red moon crawled out of the east...a fetid stink of cesspools and burning sugar." Shunned, abused, conned and finally murdered by a racist mob, his instrument finds its way into the hands of a succession of immigrants for whom music is their only eloquence.

This is not so much a novel as an ingenious patchwork quilt, showing the American continent as the remnants of older, more ordered civilizations. From a distance it looks, as American novelist John O'Hara described it, "a country that has leaped from barbarism to decadence without touching civilization." Proulx makes you look closely to see that the patchwork society is made up from jewel-bright scraps salvaged from close-knit and highly individualistic ethnic groups and shows that the butchered language and low level culture come from a need to adapt too quickly. Reviled by racists, the immigrants mask their identity and are in turn shunned by their own children who come to detest their alienating origins.

The novelist turns herself into a telescope, showing the immigrants first as miniaturised masses and then as memorable individuals. "Silvano was repulsed by the moil on the wharf. It was as though some great spatula had scraped through Italy and deposited this crust of humans on the edge of the oily harbour." Magnified, the various moils reveal a splendid range of eccentrics, from Mrs Malefoot, who kept "a bitterly clean house", to old Gerti Beutle who tried to revive her German husband's lust by presenting her bare rump across a potato barrel while singing "The Best Things in Life are Free", to the Frenchman who got into trouble for calling a man "un bougre du chien" and hitting him with a hen.

There are few love stories and fewer happy endings. Relationships are contingent, and birth and death accidental and often violent. Strange and wonderful fates befall Proulx's characters. One man cuts off his own head with an electric saw. A bride dies by inhaling a piece of shrimp at her wedding. She mixes fact with fiction, insinuating that half of history, is composed of legend and she teases the reader by sending up her own tall tales. Wasn't it Rawley Sharp, she asks, who fell into the hot spring at Yellowstone Park, "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 ledge?" After which she adds, "You bet."

Magic realism is stirred up with stranger-than-fiction facts. There is Mrs Blush Leleur, the French traiteuse who, as a child, saw her father try to set fire to her mother. "The child directed a savage thought at her father, that he become small and weak. That night her father began to shrink. The process was agonizingly slow, but in ten years he was the height of a child, withered and tiny, his arms like hollow stalks, and when he finally died he was no larger than a loaf of bread." In part a museum of Americana, the novel delights in possibly real-life characters like Howard Poplin, who toured America with his Atomic Power Trailer Church of Jesus, and later made his fortune designing a camper vehicle called The Conqueror, changing his name to Happy Jack.

Proulx writes a rollercoaster prose that is dense and chewy as a Christmas cake, alternating images of an earthly heaven with apocalyptic horrors and glimpses of a poignant and heroic humanity. You get the feeling that her astonishing energy comes from Hawbakers Red Fox Urine, and Thanks a Million tonic, or at least from her delight in their labels.

This novel confirms Proulx as one of the great American writers - an American Dickens, lyrical, ironic, compassionate and courageous. So why did I get an urge to stop reading half way through? For all its brilliance the novel fails in its structure and becomes a series of aggravating cul- de-sacs. Proulx creates unforgettable characters and then barks "change your partners," like a set-dance compere. I still want to know what happened to poor little 12-year-old Silvano, orphaned son of the immigrant accordion maker, last seen as a stowaway in a stinking New Orleans fishing boat burning with hatred for all Sicilians and begging the skipper: "My name are Bob Joe. I work for you please."

Page by page this book is a stunner but it lacks a centre and makes you hanker after poor, lugubrious, gentle Quoyle in The Shipping News, whose misfortunes were pursued at sufficient length for him to ponder, "it may be that sometimes love occurs without pain or misery."