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Coming Through Slaughter (1996)

Coming Through Slaughter (1996)
3.92 of 5 Votes: 4
0679767851 (ISBN13: 9780679767855)
vintage books
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Coming Through Slaughter (1996)
Coming Through Slaughter (1996)

About book: I wanted to love this first novel of Ondaatje, but I am left feeling it is like a jazz improvisation that doesn’t achieve flight enough to linger long in the mind. My disappointment feels similar to looking for a Picasso Blue Period in the origins of his mastery and turning up instead an aborted Cubist Period. Still, it was worth it for me to experience this dalliance with a postmodernist structure and witness his transition from poet to novelist.This slim 1976 book is an ambitious attempt to bring to life a seminal black jazz cornet player, Buddy Bolden, at the turn of the 20th century. His innovation of blending blues with funeral parade music has been considered a precursor to ragtime jazz. The setting is the infamous Storyville red-light district of New Orleans, which brings to light both the wayward energies of the era as well as the tough way of life for the women involved. Bolden works part-time as a barber, gathers gossip for a local weekly celebrity news tabloid, and gets in a lot of trouble with booze and women. At one point, he abandons his wife and child for a ménage with a married couple and then stops performing music for a two-year stretch living at a cabin on owed by an old friend from his wild youth. At a comeback performance in a parade, he has a break from reality and tragically ends up committed as a state mental hospital for the rest of his life. From this sketchy history of a not very sympathetic figure, Ondaatje crafts a sketchy narrative, strong on form and improvised impressions, but light on significant insight. Of course, one can say all novels and biographies come up short in explaining the origins of creative genius. So it’s not so much that aspect which disappoints, but rather that I don’t really get a satisfying portrayal of Bolden as a human character. Other interesting key characters, such as Bolden’s policeman friend Webb and the photographer of prostitutes, E.J. Bellocq, are also not seriously fleshed out. Instead we get a poet’s vision of Bolden’s experiences from his environment, infused with sex, alcohol, and periodic violence, and persistent renderings that reflect his passion for music. Some of this works very well and sometimes it overreaches. One particular success lies in the way Ondaatje’s narration of the tale often emulates jazz in its progressions on various themes and in the way the voice is passed around to various characters. I end with a few quotes to illustrate his prose and help potential readers decide whether to give the book a spin. Here a fellow musician describes Bolden’s style:He’s mixing them up. .He’s playing the blues and the hymn sadder than the blues and then the blues sadder than the hymn. That is the first time I heard blues and hymns cooked up together. …It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Here he comes to founder over binding his identity so much to his music”You’d play and people would grab you and grab you till you began to—you couldn’t help it—believe you were doing something important. And all you were doing was stealing chickens, nailing things to the wall. Every time you stopped playing you became a lie. So I got so, with Bellocq, I didn’t trust any of that … any more. It was just playing games. We were furnished rooms and Bellocq was a window looking out.Here his perceptions while swimming with his girlfriend exposes his growing mental imbalance:Below our heads all the evil dark swimming creatures are waiting to brush us into nightmare into heart attack to suck us under into the darkness into the complications. Her loon laugh. The dull star of white water under each of us. Swimming towards the sound of madness. Here a period of sobriety in the retreat at his friend’s cabin also brings interludes of unreality:What do you want to know about me Webb? I’m alone. I desire every woman I remember. Everything is clear here and still I feel my brain has walked away and is watching me. I feel I hover over the objects in this house, over every person in my memory—like those painted saints in my mother’s church who seem to always have six or seven inches between them and the ground. Posing as humans. For a two minute clip of Wynton Marsalis playing a Bolton tune, try this: For a 10 minute segment on the innovations of Bolton and historical images of his environment, check out this PBS clip:

Michael Ondaatje won't stay put. I've followed him from San Francisco (Divisadero) to Sri Lanka--one of his native lands--(Anil's Ghost) to the bowels of a Sri Lanka-to-England-to-Canada cruise ship (Cat's Table) to historical Toronto (Skin of a Lion) and finally to New Orleans for Coming Through Slaughter. Every Journey has been full of edification and delight.Before Louis Armstrong and all of them there was Buddy Bolden, said to be the hottest trumpeter in all the Big Easy. He was never recorded, his active days being done before the technology was available. However, his legend was, well, legendary. Buddy grew up and lived, naturally, in the Storyville section of the city, where you could shop for prostitutes in a directory not only by name and address but by race and skin shade. Buddy fell in love with one, married her, had a couple of kids. He cut hair by day, played his horn by night.He was an erratic guy, turning up here and there whenever it suited him. He played with some groups, or rather alongside them. Sort of what the pre-school handbooks call "Parallel Play." Many times the other players didn't know when he would start or stop or understand what he did in between. When it came parade time, he preferred to wait along the line of march, then jump in some place or another, either in concert or completely beyond the parameters of whatever group was marching beside or behind him. Not everyone loved what he played, but they all applauded his skill and inventiveness, and they agreed no one was louder.We know little more about his life than we know about the sound of his music. He was said to be here. Be there. Disappeared for a couple of years. Reappeared. Moved in with his wife and her new partner. Resumed an affair with the wife of a friend. Perhaps. And here's where Ondaatje's genius makes Coming Through Slaughter such a superb piece of writing. Our knowledge of Bolden's life is elliptical, full of spaces, and so is Ondaatje's prose. Diving beneath the surface, coming up again, looking around. Searching. Moving toward shore or toward somewhere. Perhaps toward the sound of a voice. We often aren't sure whose.Webb twenty and Bolden seventeen . . . they spend all their money on girls ... stock beer, gradually paste their characters on to one another.First, in Bolden's voice, a skinny dip with his friend's wife. . .Below our heads all the evil dark swimming creatures are waiting to brush us into nightmare into heart attack to suck us under into the darkness into the complications . . . Swimming towards the sounds of madness.Then, in someone else's voice ..See Tom picket.Why?Cos he, cos Buddy cut him up.The narrative ties together, but not in an easily distinguishable pattern. Just as Buddy Bolden's life and music--what we know of it--are not plain and simple.We do know that Bolden finally went mad and was incarcerated in the East Louisiana State Hospital. To get there, you had (have to?) to go through a town called Slaughter. That's the metaphor of the title, which Ondaatje saves till almost the end, unless you know it already. It's during this period of imprisonment that Ondaatje presents some of the documentation behind his story--tape recordings, mostly, memories of Bolden from acquaintances, fellow musicians. It makes for an odd post script--though not really a post script because it's essential to the story--but entirely fitting for this odd and fascinating story told by one of the supreme writers of our day.
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Coming Through Slaughter is a story I revisit often. I have read this story countless times, each time appreciating the writing and narrative more and more. Ondaatje is a wordsmith and his talent shines with his ability to intertwine fragments of song, faded photographs along with snippets of dialog. Buddy Bolden is an enigma and Ondaatje's prose preserves the shroud of mystery this talented musician deserves. Admirers of poetry, music, history, lovers of Buddy Bolden, jazz and of course New Orleans will treasure Coming Through Slaughter as I do.This book falls under the radar and should by all rights receive far more recognition, it is a best kept secret, but I am more than willing to share my beloved treasure with the world. A must read to at least pay homage to the founder of jazz Buddy Bolden and for Ondaatje's lyrical and masterful prose.
This was recommended to me at a perfect time (just coming out of a Ken Burns Jazz phase). I wouldn't say that as a whole this book *blew me away*, but I would say that individual sections and single phrases absolutely did. I often found myself so dazzled by his language that I forgot to think about how that particular section fit into the overall story. I have the utmost appreciation for Ondaatje's approach and play with form--the book itself reads kinda jazz-like (multi-tonal, multi-vocal, sections that sort of yield to, double-back on themselves, and communicate with each other).
Novieta Tourisia
Reading Coming Through Slaughter felt like a punch in my heart. It's emotional, haunting, deep and honest. Takes place between 1900 and 1907, it unfolds true life of the New Orleans jazz progenitor Buddy Bolden, whose type is haughty and womanizing, yet happened to engage to be sympathetic.I read this book twice. First was a couple years ago, when I just got the book, but didn't finish it. And during my spare time last week, I've finally made it. Not as smooth as reading Ondaatje's The English Patient, I have to admit that I found Coming Through Slaughter to be very emotional to read.
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