07/29/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
by E. Annie Proulx
The accordion that passes from hand to hand in this novel is the instrumental version of the Hope Diamond, Typhoid Mary or Jessica Fletcher. Wherever it goes, illness, death and murder surely follow. Crimes begins in 1890 with a Sicilian who arrives in New Orleans and makes the perfect accordion, only to be killed soon after by a lynch mob. Proulx goes on to chronicle the grim lives of other immigrants—German-Americans founding a new town in South Dakota, Mexican field-workers in Texas, African sharecroppers in Mississippi—all of whom find the promised land sullied by poverty, racism and utterly senseless acts of violence.
Fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shipping News—a tough, poignant novel about redemption through love—are likely to be disappointed by Crimes. Though Proulx's ear is sharp and her prose smart and stinging, her characters remain remote, and the violence—people are impaled, decapitated, even boiled alive—seems viciously mechanical. In the end the accordion becomes a battered piece of junk, much like the country Proulx's characters inhabit. "Everything over there deliberately ruined," says one, "to prove it could be ruined." (Scribner, $25.)