Books: A Lyrical Turn to the Epic

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Books: A Lyrical Turn to the Epic
By Miles Harvey

Accordion Crimes, by E. Annie Proulx (Scribner, $25).
From Homer's Odyssey to Dante's Divine Comedy, perhaps the purest genre of literature is the travel epic. Now E. Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and a frequent contributor to Outside, has written a travel epic with a twist: The hero is a musical instrument. Proulx's offbeat novel tells the tale of an accordion made by a craftsman in Sicily and brought to New Orleans in the late 1800s. As the decades progress, the instrument passes from place to place and from ethnic group to ethnic group: Germans in Iowa, Mexicans in Texas, French Canadians in Maine, Cajuns and African-Americans in Louisiana, Basques in Montana, and Poles in Chicago. The novel is divided into eight sections, each loosely centered around one of the accordion's many owners. It's a risky structure, and in lesser hands it might have come off as gimmicky or disjointed, but Proulx manages to weave these disparate narratives into a richly rewarding whole. As she relates the tales of the various owners--from the troubled orphan who cuts off his own head with a chainsaw to the impoverished zydeco player who gives up his music and gets rich investing in a solid-waste landfill--she is also telling the story of twentieth-century America. More often than not, the country she portrays is a violent and alienating land that strips immigrants of their native music and, consequently, their souls. By the end, the squeezebox--abandoned and wrecked and capable of little more than a sickly moan--is notable only for some crumpled money stashed inside its bellows. Yet for all its gloom and gore, Accordion Crimes erupts with moments of redemptive beauty and marvelously odd comic wrinkles, such as when a pair of lifelong losers dances to victory in the annual Polish Polka Play-Offs. This isn't an easy or pleasant book, but it is an affecting one, as plaintive and haunting as the sound of the accordion itself.

Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert,
by William Langewiesche (Pantheon Books, $24).
Near the beginning of Langewiesche's journey by bus, taxi, camper, and car across the Sahara, a perplexed native asks him why he doesn't just fly. "I want to feel the desert," the author responds. "It feels bad," the man assures him. True enough, but the resulting tale of torrid and sometimes horrid travel makes for an arresting book. Langewiesche--an Atlantic Monthly foreign correspondent with a gift for melodic and sensual prose--journeys from Algiers, where Islamic radicals are in the midst of an assassination attempt, to the Eastern Erg, a sea of sand so big and forbidding that its core area is the size of New York State and has a population of zero, to Mauritania, a country upon which the desert is advancing so fast that "dunes have buried whole villages." In the most harrowing of Langewiesche's adventures, a pair of gun-runners purposely abandons him in "the Sahara's most uninviting corner," near the Algeria-Libya border, leaving him to wonder why he ever began the trip. "If the Sahara killed me," he realizes, "I would die stupidly." Maybe so, but readers will be grateful for his thick-headedness and inspired persistence.

Amazon Stranger: A Rainforest Chief Battles Big Oil, by Mike Tidwell (Lyons & Burford, $22.95).
For someone who lives in one of the world's most secluded spots, Randy Borman sure gets a lot of press. He probably deserves it. The son of American missionaries, Borman grew up among an isolated tribe of Cofan Indians in the Ecuadoran Amazon. As a young man, he tried living in the United States but was unable to abandon the urge to hunt and gather, feeding on raccoons and other roadkill between classes at Michigan State. Giving up on American life, he returned to the jungle, married a Cofan woman, and was elected chief of his tribe. Then, in the early nineties, he led an insurrection against a huge oil company that was attempting to build environmentally destructive wells in his homeland--a fight that for now, at least, he seems to have won. Borman's story has made him the subject of a spate of articles, one of which appeared in this magazine in August 1989. Now comes the first book, and it's a good one. Journalist Mike Tidwell spent several months getting to know this complex and contradictory figure--who on the one hand hunts with blowguns and on the other sells cheese puffs and soda out of his home and dreams of owning an ultralight plane. The result is a fascinating--if sometimes loosely organized and repetitive--portrait of a person straddling two very different worlds.

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