Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje. Pub 1976
I sought out this book earlier in the year after finishing But Beautiful, the lovely book of stories about storied jazz musicians. In several reviews of that book, people had gushed about the wonderfulness of Ondaatje’s short novel/novella about jazz musician Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a short-lived and obscure trumpet player of the early 20th century New Orleans. Given that, for the most part, I have regretted any time spent reading Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion is the only exception), I nonetheless followed the reviews and started on this one. I should have stuck to my Ondaatje-avoidance. This book is the longest short book I’ve ever read. It is vague and meandering, presented in short bursts that attempt to be poetic but are not, and fails to capture any of the bluesy jazzy musicality I would have expected in a story about a jazz musician. Instead, there are just the sordid and salacious bits of a dissolute life that ends with literal madness, told in fits and starts like some discordant experimental jazz composition that aficionados pretend to like but that no one really does. The title refers (I’m guessing, as it’s never made clear) to the town of Slaughter, LA, on the route from New Orleans to the asylum where Bolden is eventually committed. While based on a true story and real person, the fantasy presented is worse than any reality, and Ondaatje takes such considerable license with locations, dates, and characters that it would likely have been easier and more coherent to have made the entire thing up than to try to tie it to a historical persona and place.
A background but seemingly significant character in this story is E.J. Bellocq, another tortured and troubled artist of the time and place whose own story is further twisted and changed for the novel. I think I would have much rather read a novel based on Bellocq with Bolden as a background character.
At the risk of my Canadian bona fides, I will never read another Ondaatje. They suck up too much energy and are ultimately unsatisfying. There are plenty of other good Canadian authors who are enjoyable, and Ondaatje can live with one less reader and still pay his bills.
I wanted to finish this book to get it off my list and out of my book pile. I was most distressed to realize after finishing it that I’m likely not going to be able to use it as part of this year’s list, as all of these categories have been accounted for already.
Fate: charity shop or little book library, whichever will get it out of the house faster.