A Review of the Novel “Coming Through Slaughter” by Michael Ondaatje

The name Buddy Bolden probably means absolutely nothing to most reader. That is, unless you’re a Jazz enthusiast and/or a music historian. In which case, you’ll probably know that Bolden was a coronet player in New Orleans at the turn of the previous century. You’ll also know that he was a bit of a legend – not only for his coronet playing, but also because at the age of 31, he went crazy. But not before his music making in the Storyville district of that Louisiana town had found its place the annals of Jazz history. Just enough about Buddy Bolden survived to become the inspiration for Michael Ondaatje (author of “The English Patient”) to write the book, “Coming Through Slaughter”.

So, who was Buddy Bolden? The information that can be found about this unusual man is sparse, at best. Most of what is available is a mixture of contradictions, rumors and conjecture along with the apparent facts and lone surviving picture of the man. According to this book (and several sites on the Internet), aside from being a Jazz coronet player, he might also have been a barber. He lived with one woman – Nora – as his wife, but disappeared to be with another woman – whom he also loved, despite her being married to someone else. It’s also possible that he was an alcoholic, and that addiction may have played some part in his eventual insanity and death. Or perhaps, it was the taunts of Nora’s ex-pimp that pushed him over the edge, causing him to cut up the pimp’s pretty face before he ran off to his other lover. Then again, it could have been the animal-wild Jazz music he played, which engulfed and enraptured his audiences, which took some toll on his mental stability.

That Bolden was committed, that he died a premature death and the song that survives today that still bears his name (‘Buddy Bolden’s Blues’, also known as ‘Funky Butt’) seem to be the only things about Buddy Bolden that everyone can agree on. The mystery and myths behind this man’s life easily stirs one’s imagination. And who better a novelist/poet than Michael Ondaatje to take these scant but varied elements and write a truly inspiring book that mingles the few facts into a melodic collection of fiction.

As for the book itself, if you’ve read anything by Ondaatje, you’ll know that he uses a very special style. For instance, in his “Collected Works of Billy the Kid” he mixes different types of writing to try to get inside the head of the character. In “Coming Through Slaughter” (CTS), Ondaatje once again uses a unique story telling method by giving us bits of conversations, recollections, letters, documents, poems and stories into a puzzle-like collection. With this, the reader pieces it all together in order to get a full picture of who this relatively unknown character was, and in doing so gives flesh to someone with a skeletal history. Moreover, Ondaatje achieves this in a slim volume (only 159 pages), which is of constant amazement. This is especially true when there are pages here which are practically empty. But it is the poetry and imagery that Ondaatje is famous for, which give us the feeling that there is more in this book than meets the eye. For instance, one page holds only the line “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky”. This line is repeated later in the book as part of a poem called ‘Train Song’. In fact, this group of words are practically the whole poem itself – mixed and chopped and re-arranged to give the reader a ‘clickity-clack’ quality that one would associate with a train.

The title of this book may seem a bit difficult to understand, and possibly unattached to the subject matter. Of course, we know ‘slaughter’ is a brutal killing of a living thing. But Slaughter is also the name of a town located between New Orleans and the East Louisiana State Hospital where Bolden was a patient from the time of his mental illness until he died. When he was committed, they brought him from New Orleans, “through Slaughter” to the hospital. And for his burial, they had to bring his body back “through Slaughter” to the cemetery. So, the title of this book is a metaphor for Bolden’s life and music. His music, also fed the Jazz movement in its earliest stages. His insanity and death was his sacrifice to his art.

Part of this book follows what seems to be an investigation into Bolden’s disappearance by an acquaintance of Bolden – a policeman by the name of Webb. Through Webb’s tracking of Bolden, we are given more insights into the world that Bolden lived in, as well as the people and places that he lived amongst. In other parts of this book, we can almost hear Bolden’s voice, and listen to the inner workings of his brain. Often, Ondaatje builds these pieces with such a steady flow that he disregards convention and does without punctuation. While this might disturb some purists, the effect is one of smoothness and fluidity that might have been disrupted by the insertion of a comma or quotation mark.

Of course, this means that we, the readers, cannot lay back and be spoon-fed the contents of this book. We are forced to feel what Bolden might have felt. We are forced to experience and touch and hear a world that existed over a century ago. Ondaatje achieves this, not through volumes of description and details, but through an atmosphere that is built up, with layer upon layer of poetic language and evocative phrases. All this, in short paragraphs and chapters and conversations that mimic the rhythm and beat of the music that Bolden was famous for playing.

It is almost impossible for one to really review this book. It isn’t something that can be described in words but rather something that must be experienced to be totally understood. This book is Jazz and Blues; it is a literary performance that will stir you to your very bones; it is poetry and emotion and the essence of a man that otherwise would never have come to your attention. This book is – to say the very least – extremely highly recommended and deserves a full five out of five stars.

More reviews of Michael Ondaatje novels by this contributor on Yahoo! Voices:
Anil’s Ghost
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

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