(Reviewed by JD Jung)
“…and you like a weather bird arcing round in the middle of your life to exact opposites and burning your brains out so that from June 5 1907 till 1931 you were dropped into amber in the East Louisiana State Hospital. Some saying you went mad trying to play the devil’s music and hymns at the same time, and Armstrong telling historians that you went mad by playing too hard and too often drunk too wild too crazy. The excesses cloud up the page. There was the climax of the parade and them you removed yourself from the 20th century game of fame, the rest of your life a desert of facts. Cut them open and spread them out like garbage.”
Creative people are often tormented with self-destructive behavior. That was the case with Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans cornet player who was regarded to have been one of the original contributors to what would be later known as jazz. However, it would turn worse for Bolden; he would become violently deranged and later be committed.
The multi-faceted Bolden was a not only a musician, but started out as a barber, publisher of the local gossip rag “The Cricket”, adoring husband and dedicated father. The historical novel, Coming Through Slaughter, concentrates mostly on the two years that Bolden disappeared from his friends and family and moved to Shell Beach as part of their music scene. He stayed with pianist Jaelin Brewitt and his wife, Robin. Bolden had a not-so-discreet sexual affair with Robin, which is graphically and poetically described by author Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient).
The story switches between Bolden’s perspective and those close to him, like friend and police detective Webb and various fellow band members. These fascinating accounts differ between all of them, as Buddy lived a different life with each person he was associated with.
I can’t tell you what is truth and what is fiction–even though I spent a lot of time researching different elements of the book–but I can say that the story kept me mesmerized. Also, Ondaatje’s haunting writing style with rhythmic and syncopated prose added to the dire mood of the story.
Those familiar with Storyville will recognize many of the characters mentioned in the book. Readers, like me, who are fascinated with New Orleans and its history, will definitely enjoy Coming Through Slaughter. Then again, I recommend this for jazz lovers and those interested in examining the human condition.
(Note: Though Coming Through Slaughter was reprinted in 1996, this review is based on the mass-market paperback published in 1979.)