E Annie Proulx is the first new writer for years whose books I look forward to being published. They are about people who have to work for a living and try to make what they can out of the scraps that capitalism has to offer. All her books have a sense that if we can keep some of our humanity in these circumstances then who knows what may be possible in the future. She is a profoundly realistic writer who stirs feelings that have the same root as those of organised politics.
Her first publication was a collection of short stories, Heart Songs, published in 1988, in which you can see her technique and concerns crystallising. Her first novel, Postcards, was published in 1991 when she was 56, and was a critical success, winning her awards that enabled her to become a fulltime novelist. The book starts with Loyal Blood murdering his fiancée and burying her body under a drystone wall. Later we discover the reason for the crime: part sexual fury and partly to prevent her leaving for New York that seems so full of wartime opportunity 'that the money's just pouring down, all you have to do is stand in the right place with your hand out'. Convinced the body would soon be found, Loyal Blood leaves home, taking one job after another mill worker, fossil hunter, bean grower. His only connection with his family are the postcards he sends home with no return address.
Proulx then juxtaposes the fortunes of the wandering Loyal, never able to touch a woman, with the family he left without explanation. The farm is too much for mother and brother, so the tragedy of the murder is compounded by the ruin of the family. While this is clearly not a cheerful book, Proulx finds hope in the most desolate landscape. While the farming communities are destroyed, new jobs and lives are always possible.
Her second novel, The Shipping News, is quite different in tone and technique, though it has the same exquisite eye for detail based on exhaustive research. In a much more conventional narrative form, she traces the life of Quoyle, 'born in Brooklyn, and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns'. A 36 year old failure in every conceivable aspect of life, he becomes a journalist in Newfoundland, 'land of his forefathers'. Gradually he rebuilds his life and develops his weekly column, 'The Shipping News' of the title. As he does so, a picture is built of the Newfoundland community not only the characters and daily life, but also its history of trade and manufacture, whaling, canning and, of course, shipping. Her skill is such that you can taste seal fin curry and understand ice.
This is the most optimistic of her three novels, and leaves a profound sense that in spite of everything, it is possible to retain a little humanity and that to do so is a victory hard won.
Good as her first two books are, nothing prepared me for Accordion Crimes, which traces the formation of the US proletariat from the end of slavery through successive emigrations. She details the unceasing barbarity of the most powerful capitalism the world has seen so far. The scope of her knowledge and her ability to shift from documentary description to the most condensed poetry are breathtaking.
The book centres on an accordion, designed and built by a Sicilian who emigrates to New Orleans in 1893. He is murdered in an anti-Italian pogrom in New Orleans, and the accordion passes through one community of migrants after another. Thus Accordion Crimes is about a series of characters whose lives show in heartrending detail how people were smashed into the US class structure.
This process is also reflected in the music played by various owners of the accordion. The musicians try to play music for a living as well as a way of life, and have to make decisions about keeping to the old ways or adapting to their new world. One of the many strengths is Proulx's understanding of the sheer joy of performing music, from Polish polka to zydeco.
The ruling class is present only at the very beginning as it sets Irish, black and Italian workers at each other's throats to encourage competition for wages. Otherwise, it is the murderous presence behind a dizzying succession of accidents which maim and kill one character after another.
If this was all there was, the book would be unreadable. But Proulx is a fine dialectician, swooping from tragedy to farce at the twist of a phrase. Each section also combines fictional and historical events and characters, rather like Steinbeck, Dos Passos and Selby, only with greater fluency and apparently written from within our class's experience.
Characters may last a couple of lines, their future deaths reminding us of the experimental use of plutonium to treat cancer, or the fate of British war orphans among Canadian farmers. She describes whole histories in a page, using rich poetic images. A child born into a sharecropping family, 'cheated annually of the money he earned, deprived of arithmetic and literacy... never said what he thought, only what he wanted, and wanted only what he could have' until, at the age of 83, he 'called for roast beef and champagne (two dietary items he had elevated to iconic status having tasted them once 50 years earlier)' and died two days later, 'worn out by the grand tradition of struggle'.
E Annie Proulx is one of the few writers to give expression to this 'grand tradition of struggle' in the everyday lives of people who in too many works of literature aren't even given a name.
She is an immensely gifted writer, who follows in the great radical American tradition that tried to get the language of the experience of workers on the printed page. Like James Kellman and Roddy Doyle she has created a complex form of written expression mirroring the complexities of lives dominated by the rhythms of exploitation in which people risk their lives merely to avoid being late for work. In doing so she confirms our best sentiments and hopes for the future.