E. Annie Proulx
Proulx's third novel, and first since the spectacular success of her Pulitzer--winning The Shipping News (1993), is a panoramic mosaic of the immigrant experience in 20th century America that confirms her oft-noted similarity to Steinbeck--and offers the most comprehensive survey of working-class life since Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy. It begins in 1890 with the passage to "La Merica" of a Sicilian accordion maker and his small son, and their ordeal in New Orleans, where the (nameless) father finds work on the docks and meets a violent fate that will become the pattern engulfing virtually all of the story's successive characters. Proulx then telescopes the lives of those into whose hands the Sicilian's button accordion passes--whether it's given, sold, or stolen--through the next hundred years. Thus we observe the mingled passion for music and brute violence of a German immigrant family in North Dakota; a brawling Acadian clan and its Cajun relations; the Polish Przbyszes of Chicago; and many others. The sheer number of varied and vivid characters created, and the specifics of their lives, are enough to make this one of the most accomplished American novels of recent years. Proulx's angular, image-filled prose is tuned down a notch or two here; the demands imposed by the book's staggering content obviously required that it be somewhat more conventionally expository. The real fire is in her tone-perfect dialogue. Some may object to what seems an unrealistic profusion of melodramatic incident. But surely Proulx's point is that America's underclass--particularly its non-native one--is especially vulnerable and (here we see her daring) prone to angry confrontation and early death. She faces it unflinchingly, and the results are grim, depressing, and memorable. The popular-literary audience that loved The Shipping News will devour this big novel as well.