by Ondaatje, Michael
Michael Ondaatje has said that his 1976 jazz novel, Coming Through Slaughter, began with a chance phrase in a newspaper: "Buddy Bolden who became a legend when he went berserk in a parade." Cited by many as the father of jazz trumpet, Bolden's legendary fall from improvisational virtuosity to a lingering demise in a mental asylum propels this incisive novel of artistic and emotional passion. Coming Through Slaughter reanimates the Storyville district of New Orleans, where "2000 prostitutes were working regularly" and where "black whores and musicians [were] shipped in from the suburbs and the black customers [were] refused." Amid sin and segregation, Bolden is "obsessed with the magic of air, those smells that turned neuter as they revolved in his lung then spat out in the chosen key."
Slaughter is very much a novel of obsessions. In addition to a music of "pure" notes and "long squawks," Bolden's passions include his wife, Nora, their children, the local tabloid he edits (and fills with stories of death), and the lover for whom he eventually abandons his family (and possibly his music). Minor characters are equally fixated. The photographer Bellocq (another Storyville character Ondaatje lifts from history) agonizes over his portraits of prostitutes. The detective Webb meticulously hunts for the missing Bolden. But while each of Ondaatje's later novels splits its attention equally among a quartet of characters, Slaughter rarely shifts its focus from the manic Bolden. Here, then, is Ondaatje's clearest picture of the self. Clear, loud, and bursting with passion, the self he picture