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Coming Through Slaughter (1976)

by Michael Ondaatje

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,2431910,743 (3.76)49
Bringing to life the fabulous, colorful panorama of New Orleans in the first flush of the jazz era, this book tells the story of Buddy Bolden, the first of the great trumpet players - some say the originator of jazz - who was, in any case, the genius, the guiding spirit, and the king of that time and place. In this fictionalised meditation, Bolden, an unrecorded father of Jazz, remains throughout a tantalizingly ungraspable phantom, the central mysteries of his life, his art, and his madness remaining felt but never quite pinned down. Ondaatje's prose is at times startlingly lyrical, and as he chases Bolden through documents and scenes, the novel partakes of the very best sort of modern detective novel - one where the enigma is never resolved, but allowed to manifest in its fullness. Though more 'experimental' in form than either The English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion, it is a fitting addition to the renowned Ondaatje oeuvre.… (more)
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    Polaris-: Both sensitively explore the imagined possibilities behind what facts are known. Their authors both manage to convey an essence of jazz - the agony and the ecstasy.
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    M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A : poems by A. Van Jordan (whitewavedarling)
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    The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros (whitewavedarling)
    whitewavedarling: Both these novels are built from poetic prose and intoxicating atmospheres of jazz, New Orleans, mystery, and emotion. Maistros' work is of a darker material and allows the supernatural a large part in its' path, but both works are eerily tangible and fascinating once you allow yourself to get sucked in, and the atmospheres are strangely similar, however different the stories are.… (more)
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    Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (ShelfMonkey)
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» See also 49 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Dark, experimental prose that plays with form and language, mirroring Buddy Bolden's descent into madness. Ondaatje has lines that reach up and smack you across the face in this one. ( )
  Cail_Judy | Apr 21, 2020 |
This is just overwhelming as hell. ( )
  Adammmmm | Sep 10, 2019 |
Michael Ondaatje was already well established as a poet when he published this, a poet's first novel if ever there was one. It's an attempt to recreate the inner life of Buddy Bolden, a cornet player and pioneer of the new kind of American music that would soon become known as jass or jazz. No recordings exist of Bolden's playing, and very little is known of his life beyond the fact that he had a breakdown during a Mardi Gras parade, died years later in a Louisiana asylum, and was thought of by Louis Armstrong and his generation as having started their artistic tradition.

Into this creative vacuum Ondaatje pours his allusive, fluid prose, which darts about between internal monologue, interview snippets, quick conversation scenes, and modern-day investigative reportage. He paints a vivid picture of late-nineteenth-century New Orleans, around the legendary red-light district of Storyville, where ‘2000 prostitutes were working regularly,’ there were ‘at least 70 professional gamblers’ and ‘30 piano players took in several thousand each in weekly tips’. ‘Here the famous whore Bricktop Jackson carried a 15 inch knife,’ Ondaatje tells us, a tour guide asking us to look to our left, ‘and her lover John Miller had no left arm and wore a chain with an iron ball on the end to replace it.’

Like good jazz, the writing is rhythmic and improvisational, transposing viewpoints and images like key changes – and, sometimes, a little self-indulgent. But when Ondaatje is inhabiting Bolden's mind, he is very convincing, building up a detailed life and mental state from a rush of sensory impressions:

He collected and was filled by every noise as if luscious poison entering the ear like a lady's tongue thickening it and blocking it until he couldn't be entered anymore. A fat full king. The hawk its locked claws full of salmon going under greedy with it for the final time. Nicotine form the small smokes he found burning into his nails, the socks thick with dry sweat, the nose blowing out the day's dirt into a newspaper. Asking for a glass of water and pouring in the free ketchup to make soup. Sank through the pavement into the music of the town of Shell Beach.

Bolden's life is built up above all by the people around him: his wife, his lover, the customers in his barber's shop, bandmembers, an old friend who has become a policeman. An especially powerful subplot revolves around the photographer EJ Bellocq, whose revealing and touching portraits of Storyville prostitutes were found after his death.

Not the least prominent supporting character is Ondaatje himself, who is constantly interrogating his own thoughts as he writes and researches the book.

The thin sheaf of information. Why did my senses stop at you? There was the sentence, ‘Buddy Bolden who became a legend when he went berserk in a parade…’ What was there in that, before I knew your nation your colour your age, that made me push my arm forward and spill it through the front of your mirror and clutch myself?

One wants to write about this novel as though it were music – in terms of its solos, its tone, its timbre. Experimental and poetic, it's a mostly-successful attempt to get inside one exhausted, creative life within an exhausted, creative city. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Mar 8, 2019 |
Wow. ( )
  reganrule | Feb 22, 2016 |
I found this book a bit of a struggle. Set in Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans at the start of the twentieth century, it promised a lot but failed to deliver.

The novella tells the story of Buddy Bolden, accomplished cornet player by night, though by day he supported himself working in a barbershop. Recognised as a gifted musician, Bolden has plenty of demons to deal with and is subsiding into alcoholism alongside a gambling addiction. Hitherto devoted to Nora, his wife, he suddenly also finds himself madly in love with Robin, wife of his fellow musician Jaileen Brewitt. The emotional intensity of his situation grows too much for Bolden and he disappears, leaving his friends and family to try to pick up the pieces and discover where he has gone.

I have enjoyed some of Ondaatje's other books, and particularly 'The Cat's Table' though I also remember finding 'The English Patient (both the book and the film) unnecessary drawn out, even to the extent of thinking "Please just die!". Reading this book was not, however, an enjoyable experience. The story was disjointed and the characters extremely remote: I don't need to feel great affection for characters in order to enjoy a book, but I do normally need to feel some interest in their fates. I couldn't summon the strength of spirit to feel anythi9ng at all for any of the figures in this book, and was merely conscious of a ggreat sense of relief when I finally finished it. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Jan 8, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
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For Quintin and Griffin. For Stephen, Skyler, Tory and North. And in memory of John Thompson.
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