catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 4 :: 2003.02.14 — 2003.02.27


Coming Through Slaughter: The destruction of a man

Sydney Bechet, a New Orleans saxophonist from the jazz era, claims in his autobiography that the word “jazz” comes from “jass,” which at that time was a local slang word for sex. This connection is reasonable when one considers that many musicians in early 20th century New Orleans supported themselves by providing entertainment in one of hundreds of brothels located in the Storyville district, a 38-block designated area where prostitution was legal. Storyville was where Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the main character in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, most likely slept with, among a number of other women, his future wife and all of her sisters.

While Buddy was emerging from Storyville with Nora Bass, jazz was also extending its influence beyond the red-light boundaries. Jazz was quickly becoming a cultural essential in New Orleans, making itself heard at nearly every social event, from baptisms to funerals. Because the music was often performed outdoors, the trumpet was the most important instrument for its powerful ability to be easily projected in large spaces. Another shift taking place in jazz was the new notion of the music as collective improvisation that involved a series of solos. Bolden, a cornetist with an overwhelming desire for solo improvisation, was at the forefront of these revolutions.

In Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje attempts to capture Bolden’s thought process and understand Bolden’s actions by factually and fictionally recreating the setting of New Orleans in the heyday of jazz and by exploring Bolden’s relationships to his music and to other people in the context of that setting. He does so most successfully using the elements of style and theme.

Just as Buddy Bolden’s life was a long way from being the romanticized life of a jazz musician, Ondaatje’s style in this book is a long way from being typical. By using a number of different methods and media, Ondaatje gives the reader the impression of standing in the middle of downtown New Orleans with cars passing on one side, conversing people on the other, numerous flashing signs beckoning patronage, and a variety of music coming from all directions. The method, which throws chronology out the window along with tradition, involves the reader in the search to discover the who’s and why’s of Buddy Bolden.

Inspired by actual events, the book makes use of the jazz archives at New Orleans’ Tulane University for portions of past interviews held with those who knew Bolden personally as well as those who only knew jazz personally. Another factual element Ondaatje uses is lists, lists of such things as brass bands, Bolden’s songs, and suburbs of New Orleans. He also uses time lines to establish the sequence of events that isn’t always so easy to follow on account of flashbacks and changes in narration. Ondaatje uses these facts to integrate the reader into some common knowledge of the people in the setting and to serve as a foundation for his fictional extensions of the story.

Ondaatje carries the variety of perspectives we get from the interviews into his additions to the story by switching from one narrator to another, sometimes doing so in the middle of a short section. For example, during a period of two years when Buddy disappeared from New Orleans, the reader not only gets the story from Buddy’s perspective, but also from the perspective of Webb, an old friend of Buddy’s and a detective who investigates the disappearance on personal time. Not only do the perspectives switch, but the person also switches between first and third.

As another interesting technique, Ondaatje brings his poetic experience into the book, which is his first full-length work of prose, by including two poems. Just as jazz uses improvisation on a single musical theme, “Train Song” and “Nora’s song” use repetition and variations of a particular phrase. Here’s “Train Song,” for example:

Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like sky. Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like sky. Passing wet chicory lies like the sky, like the sky like the sky like the sky passing wet chicory passing wet chicory lies

Ondaatje repeats this line later in the book in a prose passage, clarifying what the poem refers to. Also, for the portions of the book when Bolden is speaking in first person, Ondaatje develops a language that seems to create jazz with words. This language is most evident and powerful at the climax of the book when Bolden’s frantic music, inspired by the movement of a dancer, is reflected in his thoughts: “I speed again and she speeds tired again, a river of sweat to her waist her head and hair back bending back to me, my heart is at my throat hitting slow pure notes into the shimmy dance of victory, hair toss victory, a local strut, eyes meeting sweat down her chin arms out in a final exercise of pain.”


Repetition is also used with regards to the title. Twice in the book, Ondaatje includes references to a town north of Baton Rouge called Slaughter, through which Buddy passes twice. Not only does Ondaatje use this title as reference to the geography of Louisiana, but also to the time period and location through which Buddy passed. The title is a springboard for a number of themes.

The most concrete theme is the idea of the setting as slaughter. The acceptance of promiscuity is a major cause of conflict and downfall. Ondaatje includes a description of “the mattress whores” who have been kicked out of Storyville for showing evidence of having sexually transmitted diseases. Many of these women have had their ankles broken by pimps to ensure that they can’t make it back to Storyville and all have had their bodies ravaged by disease. They are literally rotten. Promiscuity also seems to “rot” Bolden. By the time he had his gratuitous fun in Storyville, married Nora, abandoned Nora, and had an affair with another woman, Bolden has lost his passion for jazz and is obsessed with sex. “I desire every woman I remember,” he says while he is isolated outside New Orleans, playing only scales on his cornet and preparing himself to go back home after two years.

The obsession with sex in New Orleans inevitably leads to a feeling of suspicion and competition among the men. This is most powerfully portrayed in a fight between Bolden and a man he suspects of having sex with Nora. Both emerge from the fight with a degree of physical and emotional slaughter. Not all competition existed because of women, however. Bolden was also caught up in the competition among the jazz musicians of the time. They would play

on into the night and into blue mornings, growing louder the notes burning through and off everyone and forgotten in the body because they were swallowed by the next one after and Bolden and Lewis and Cornish and Mumford sending them forward and forth till, as [Bolden] could see them, their bursts of air were animals fighting in the room.

With the revolution of jazz to a series of solos came the competition of the soloists.


Another source of slaughter and the main theme of the book is fame. The charismatic Bolden couldn’t seem to do anything without becoming locally famous for it. On his way back to New Orleans after his disappearance, he thinks, “All my life I seemed to be a parcel on a bus. I am the famous fucker. I am the famous barber. I am the famous cornet player. Read the labels. The labels are coming home.”

Out of disgust for the labels, Bolden became friends with Bellocq, a crippled photographer who wasn’t interested in Buddy’s music. Their unlikely friendship seemed to be controlled by Buddy, for it was Buddy who convinced the prostitutes to pose for the awkward, introverted Bellocq. In actuality, Buddy was gaining access to a life that was opposite his. Bellocq was “aware it was him who had tempted Buddy on. Buddy who had once been enviably public.” And shortly after Buddy disappeared, Bellocq committed suicide. They destroyed each other by flaunting what the other didn’t have but wanted more than anything.

Ondaatje also uses quotes from two different people who treat madness as the natural progression of the famous musician. Brock Mumford, a fellow jazzman, said, “Buddy didn’t leave at the peak of his glory you know. No one does. If you are at the peak you don’t have time to think about stopping you just build up and up and up. It’s only a few months later when it wears off, usually before anyone else realises it has worn off, that you start to go, if you are the kind that goes.” Bella Davenport, who married a trombone player from one of Bolden’s bands, said after her husband’s paralysis, “He and Buddy were just like that. All of them mostly lost their minds.” The question the book leaves the readers with is whether the fame drove these musicians to madness or if it was the intense nature of their art.

Coming Through Slaughter is an excellent sampling of life during the jazz era, as well as an interesting commentary on fame and its effects. Ondaatje’s language is innovative and appropriate and his strong theme is rich with universal implications. In addition, Ondaatje doesn’t try to answer any questions for his readers. He gives the facts, filling in where needed, and lets the reader decide what to think. After Bolden’s return to New Orleans, he is driven into deeper madness than before until he eventually experiences a climactic breaking point during a parade. Some say it was the result of “trying to play the devil’s music and hymns at the same time.” Others say it was from too many general excesses. Whatever the cause, Ondaatje makes it clear that, for Bolden living in New Orleans in the early 20th century, the road to anonymity was much more difficult than the road to fame. The women, the booze, the trash talk, the music?who was better off in this place, the ordinary or the extraordinary? They all came through the slaughter, but the difference was in the degree of success.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus