Dusting the Bookshelf
No -- you are not seeing things. These reviews -- albeit differing opinions -- were of notable titles in 1996 and it would be unfair to let this year get much farther without noting them. Enjoy. -- Margaret Moser
The recent novel Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx (Random House, $26 hard) is a novel with the devil's own squeezebox as its central figure. By no means an easy read, the book gets off to a sordid start in turn of the century Italy where an accordion maker lovingly slaughters a baby goat, tenderly slicing its throat and tanning its skin with brains and tallow to create a soft supple bellows, a bellows unlike any ever made before, a bellows which will breathe fire, life -- and ultimately, mayhem --forward and backward in a chronological tailspin. Simultaneously, the story chronicles the immigrant experience with an encyclopedic portraiture of accordion culture through the eyes, ears, and often obtuse genealogies of those whose destiny brings them near the inevitable accordion curse that drives the novel.
And indeed, it is itself an instrument to behold. Laquered green brilliance, bone buttons, and brass fittings on two rows that would make even Gabanelli, founding patriarch of Italian glamour-cordions, turn in his grave with envy. With a walnut wood case and a perfectly pitched reeding, the accordion is its maker's ticket to La Merica, the land of promise and plenty, a land where a craftsman with a gift such as his own might build a successful business... or so he imagines.
So begins the journey that will take the reader through the 20th century, 100 years of fleeting, split-second pleasures and ever-present, unavoidably catastrophic pain. Rendered in a voice that derives the bulk of its power from minutely detailed description that is at once challenging and ardently poetic, the voyage is accompanied by the distinct sounds of nearly every ethnic accordion music known to humankind.
As the accordion makes its way through the new world amidst dire, tragic, and, more often than not, insurmountable violence -- shades of the Chicago stockyards in the Sinclair "Jungle" --Proulx's Pulitzer-winning writing pours it on with a massive body of well-researched ethno-musicology. At times, the length and breadth of her reach even stretches the imagination, boggling the reader with true-to-life characters culled from the annals of a rainbow-colored musical history.
From a bloody landing in the racially charged hotbed of New Orleans to a stint with German settlers on the untamed frontier, a detour through gritty conjunto terrain in South Texas, the accordion becomes an almost biblical litany of sin and vice. One is reminded of the Gary Larson comic where the first panel depicts new arrivals to heaven being handed the predictable harp. And the second panel pictures those less fortunate being told "Welcome to hell, here's your accordion," while being handed their loadstone squeezeboxes.
Moving along with horses, wagons, steamships, cars, and 18-wheeler rigs from the swamp-encrusted Mississippi delta, ranging from the rolling plains to the Quebequois forests, the accordion becomes a metaphor, an under-appreciated icon which transports within its belly a stack of illicit $1,000 bills.
As it drifts in and out of forlorn lives, venomous assassinations, brujerias, Cajun spirit healings, racial strife, dysfunctional families, ungodly accidents, orphan hands, Polish polka bands, and Lawrence Welk-inspired bouts with bizarre mid-America accordion tragedies, the accordion speaks through the lost dreams and unfulfilled hopes that lodge themselves in everyone, in anyone who has ever been touched, even briefly, by music that can cut through arteries, rupture aneurysms, and save souls. (In one bitterly graphic scene near the end of the novel, a girl-child has her arms severed just above the elbows by a fly-away piece of sheet metal. As an adolescent with surgically reattached limbs, she rejects the polka and a then-dilapidated accordion in favor of rap music and Disneyland.)
With Proulx, it becomes easy to fall headlong into the muscular prose, frequently at the expense of an already convoluted storyline. One page from Proulx is an endless stream of texture, sight, and sound, a screaming, vivid, three-dimensional section of life. Another author might make an equivalent line or two in a year's time. She tosses them out and slams them down, one right after the other, frequently eliciting a painful gasp of recognition that is all too suddenly absorbed by private memory. Seductively, the hundred or so sub-plots become mirrors to our subconscious.
Accordion Crimes is at once a musical family tree and a frightening family photo. One really doesn't want the novel to end, because the icy vacuum left behind is hyper-real, the end of the accordion line. -- Abel Salas The bigger they are, the louder the thump when they hit the remainder racks. Such is the case with Anne Rice's new mega-novel Servant of the Bones (Simon & Schuster, $25 hard).
In what the book jacket touts as a "major departure" for Rice, Servant introduces yet another well-born and attractive protagonist, Azriel. Born 2,000 years ago as a wealthy captive Jew in Babylon, Azriel was special from birth. His childhood best friend was Marduk, god of Babylon.
It is Azriel's friendship with Marduk that results in him being "volunteered" as Babylon's poisoned-gold sacrifice for the New Year's festival. In return for Azriel's "volunteering," Cyrus the Persian, conqueror of Babylon, will allow Azriel's captive tribe to return home to Jerusalem. As the end of the festival when the gold-poisoned Azriel is near death, greedy priests follow an ancient formula to transform Azriel into the "Servant of the Bones" by boiling him alive in a cauldron of gold. As a result, instead of dying slowly from the poisoned gold, he can never die. However, ignoring their mother's wisdom, the priests skipped some directions in their ancient formula and got something they weren't expecting. Instead of an evil avenging angel to do their bidding, they got a powerful, fierce spirit that heeded no master.
Skip ahead 2,000 years to the present when Azriel is called from a centuries-long sleep to avenge the death of Esther Belkin. Esther was the rich, pretty daughter of Gregory Belkin, high priest of the "Temple of the Mind," a Scientology-like cult, er, church. A true, um, spiritual leader, Belkin put together the church's creed with the aid of a computer program.
Gregory Belkin had ordered his own daughter assassinated as a part of his Pinky and the Brain-ish attempt to take over the world. To make life better for rich, white countries, he plans to kill the inhabitants of poor continents with the Ebola virus. It's what you might call a "war on poverty."
This literary jumble gets worse when Rice throws in Gregory Belkin's unknown Hasidic twin brother Nathan, and their father, the powerful Rebbe of Brooklyn's Court of Hasidim. The whole mess is framed by a trusty "As told to... ."
Like many Rice fans, I have devoured several of her books in one sitting, but Servant of the Bones wasn't one of them. This is partly because her protagonist Azriel didn't seduce me like Rice's immortal New Orleans trio: Lasher, Louis, and Lestat. I didn't abandon dinner, laundry and gainful employment just to be with Azriel, as I did with the aforementioned trio.
As convoluted as this story is, the real problems with Servant of the Bones arise when the story telling stops and the "Cosomographia" begins. It is with Rice's explanation of the natural laws of her spirit world that the book begins to feel as endless as the life of one of her characters. Azriel just wasn't incentive enough to make me plow through Rice's extraneous and irrelevant paranormal explanations.
Azriel's bones aren't the only thing in the novel that are gold-plated. While Rice's newest character isn't seductive, the accouterments in the book certainly are: cashmere robes and silver spoons in rural cabins, diamond necklaces, jeweled slippers, private elevators, private jets, shirts with solid gold buttons, etc. It seems that Anne Rice is trying to become the Gothic Martha Stewart. Rice has apparently learned a lot about expensive tastes with the fortunes she's made from book sales and movie rights, and wants to share it with her readers. Most Rice fans know that Rice lives in the sumptuous Garden District mansion fictionally occupied by the Mayfair family of the Lasher series. Now we have a good idea of what she keeps in her closet.
This literary mess all results from Rice being a victim of her own popularity. She has a dedicated cadre of fans that wait anxiously for each fall's new release with the eagerness of Dick Morris at a hooker happy hour. Ironically, this annual schedule puts Anne Rice in a race against time to write about immortality, a time crunch that doesn't give her a chance to adequately edit her work. Tiny mistakes, like naming ivory as a stone would have been caught if this hadn't been a rush job. I also think Rice could probably have come up with a phrase other than "stairway to heaven" to describe the means of ascent into Heaven. I kept hearing the Led Zeppelin tune.
Perhaps Rice will earn enough money from this mess to maintain her lavish lifestyle long enough to write a book I want to read. For not only is her protagonist Azriel soulless, but so is her book. -- Anna Hanks