God, I love Ondaatje. A poet, a novelist, an innovator; his stories liberating and confronting, beautiful and chilling. In Coming Through Slaughter he builds up a portrait of Buddy Bolden, cornet player like no other, going mad at 31. It’s the story of a jazz legend, told through piling up thousands of small details and moments. New Orleans, jazz, life in 1900; prostitutes, gamblers, poverty, music, dancing, love, terror.
It’s the Storyville district of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th Century: two thousand prostitutes, all documented in the Blue Book; seventy professional gablers; and thirty piano players. Buddy Bolden cuts hair by day and plays jazz at night on his cornet “which he’d polish up until it glistened like a woman’s leg”. Then, in love with two women, addicted to whisky, enraptured by death, Bolden goes mad at 31.
There is a wildness in this story, the way that Ondaatje collects minuscule details of poor, black, music-infused life in New Orleans. The disregard of both beauty and pain, a sheer embrace of each temporary moment, not caring about it passing.
God, to sit down and play, to tip it over into music! To remove the anger and stuff it down the piano fresh every night…The music was so uncertain it was heartbreaking and beautiful. Coming through the walls. The lost anger at her or me or himself. Bullets of music delivered onto the bed we were on.
This story is told almost as a collection of facts, like Ondaatje has burrowed into this world and emerged, clasping damaged photos, almost-destroyed newspapers, old memories. They are scattered about, imbued with life through his poetic writing. It makes it almost unnerving, the beauty that is drawn from lives of such suffering. The facts, with the story, are woven together so I don’t know how much is real, who is real, what is a real life to feel sorrow for. That said, Buddy Bolden was real – now known as King Bolden, the Father of Jazz – his talent and improvisation has inspired generations of musicians. He was renowned for his volume and ‘playing by ear’, something which never was, and potentially couldn’t be anyway, captured on recording. It is stories of Bolden, his loves, his music, his downfall, that passed down have captured the imaginations of musicians.
So this is a jazz novel, and while the beat and pull of music thrums throughout, this is not a story about ragtime. It’s the world of Buddy Bolden, with the terrible friends and the good ones, the two women who pull at his heart, the life he makes and then destroys, the thoughtless decisions, the perfect ones.
Together closing up her skirt, slipping the buttons back into their holes so she was dressed again…The diamond had to love the earth it passed along the way, every speck and angle of the other’s history, for the diamond had been earth too.
There is no poverty-porn element here, however. Even with the suffering, the lives of the other, the story is told, scattered, collected in such a way that through Ondaatje’s writing, we are just brought to each scene, to each sentence, and moved on. We switch between timeframes and perspectives, there is no time for reflection or sentimentality. There is almost a rhythmical quality to his writing, in time to the music, with a real lyrical beauty. Text is chopped short on some pages, we are given set lists, dialogue, lyrics, and then mad explorations of Bolden’s mind. A pastiche of sources, layered, to tell the story.
The back blurb draws a comparison between Bolden’s life – the talent and the madness – and the famous jazz funeral processions of New Orleans, where the mourners dance, celebrating and crying. This is a perfect analogy for what this story is and how it is told: the wild pull, the moment-for-moment sheer power of life, the beat that you cannot escape. Coming Through Slaughter is an incredible book; the writing and the plot informing and feeding off one another, creating this vivid, painful world.