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The Bear Comes Home: A Novel

The Bear Comes Home: A Novel

4.3 3
by Rafi Zabor

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Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction: "A hilarious, richly imagined bear's eye view of love, music, alienation, manhood and humanity . . . that recalls Pynchon at his most controlled."—Publishers Weekly
The hero of this sensational first novel is an alto-sax virtuoso trying to evolve a personal style out of Coltrane and Rollins. He also happens to


Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction: "A hilarious, richly imagined bear's eye view of love, music, alienation, manhood and humanity . . . that recalls Pynchon at his most controlled."—Publishers Weekly
The hero of this sensational first novel is an alto-sax virtuoso trying to evolve a personal style out of Coltrane and Rollins. He also happens to be a walking, talking, Blake- and Shakespeare-quoting bear whose musical, spiritual, and romantic adventures add up to perhaps the best novel, ursine or human, ever written about jazz. "Poignant and touching moments combine with hilarious descriptions of the bear's struggle in a story that anyone — whether familiar with jazz or not — will find compelling and entertaining."—David Amram, Los Angeles Times Book Review "Zabor's knack for detail makes the absurd premise believable . . . and neatly turns the weighty subject — the painful and ungainly growth of an artist — into a comic gem."—The New Yorker "In fluent, witty prose Zabor conveys with remarkable vividness the texture of group improvisation. . . . It swings."—A. O. Scott, New York Newsday "Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. Get the Bear."—David Nicholson, Washington Post "Zabor . . . conveys the mingled joy and terror of musical improvisation. He also displays a mean wit."—New York Times Book Review One of the Los Angeles Times Book Review's 100 best books of 1997 Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Paddington, Pooh, Kipling's Baloo — Rafi Zabor's contemplative, angst-ridden, alto-blowing Kodiak is the latest to join this distinguished company of loquacious ursines. But unlike his literary fore-bears, T. Bear (That's The, not Teddy, Bear) has 'always rejected the cutesy-poo.' Able to quote Shakespeare, Blake, and Milne with tragicomic effect, adept in the mysteries of Tantric Buddhism and the harmonic language of Coltrane and Parker, Bear is, '...objectively speaking, one heavy bear.

We first meet Bear and his human partner, Jones, busking in the streets of Manhattan to earn enough for such essentials as rent and the odd salmon. Raised from cubhood by Jones (who won him in a poker game), Bear is the scion of 20 generations of talking circus bears — a genetic marvel possessing opposable thumbs as well as vocal cords. But after a long and often curious association with his hipster companion, Bear is burnt out, physically and spiritually. Deciding that it is high time to quit the day job and pursue his artistic aspirations, he throws on a pair of baggy pants, a hat, and a raincoat, grabs his horn, and heads for a jam session at a nearby club. Jones tags along in case of trouble, reminding him, 'Just because you're round and brown...don't mean everyone's gonna take you for Arthur Blythe.

Jones has good reason to be worried. Bear's initial outing is a roaring success, inspiring awe and not a little bit of professional jealousy. Perhaps tipped off by the musician's union, or the ASPCA, Bear's next performance ends in a full-scale raid by the police. Bear isdarted,tranked, and tanked in a cell until his case is forgotten due to administrative error. There he languishes, arguing the weighty existential questions of philosophy with the jailhouse psychiatrist, until a sympathetic cop helps his friends stage an elaborate ruse to spring him.

While Bear was wrestling with his demons courtesy of New York City's finest (Zabor has a few unresolved issues with the boys in blue), a recording of his last performance has been released under the title, 'Blues in Ursa Minor.' Suddenly Bear is in demand, and with recording contract and a healthy advance in the bank, all agree that he will be safer out of the city. With longtime inamorata, Iris Tremoureux, he makes the trek upstate to Woodstock (not far from Bearsville, he notes), where he can work on his next album, rehearse his band, and repair his wounded psyche in peace. Zabor's lucid riff on the band's interaction is brilliant: The mental process of improvisation and the dynamic interplay between musicians – the give and take, push and shove that feeds the music — might easily have been reduced to atonal gibberish in lesser hands, but time and again, Zabor finds inspired expression for his subject. Bear's constant inner commentary on his music is nothing less than the distilled essence of musical performance. And yet always he pushes himself harder, questioning and refining his craft: 'he heard the absences and the unworked areas, the dead transitions, the insufficiently attended lifeless notes an the wholesale acres of unfinished business — heard it every set, every night....' Throughout Zabor's literary jam session, a host of real life jazz greats — Ornette Coleman, Billy Hart, Lester Bowie, Charlie Hayden — make guest appearances and offer insight as they guide Bear along his path toward quadripedal jazz enlightenment.

Largely due to his passionate and, yes, anatomically correct (right down to the mechanics of the ursine heteroptic baculum) interspecies love affair with Iris, Bear recovers the confidence lost during his incarceration, and more. Jones, who now works for Bear's record company (after much soul-searching of his own, he has decided that gainful employment does have its merits), comes through with a hastily booked tour of out-of-the-way venues, complete with a roadworthy bus and ex-wiseguy driver. Zabor's devastating sense of humor, ever present in the constant banter between Bear and Jones, comes to the fore as the band shares raunchy road stories — capped by the keyboardist's account of touring America on the same bill with Tiny Tim, Pinky Lee, John Carradine, and Zippy the chimp. But touring has its downside, as well. And if Bear at times feels like an Old Testament prophet, testing his faith in the wilderness by walking in the 'Giant Steps' of his idols, he forges a stoic core of self against the temptations of fame and fortune.

The Bear Comes Home is an astonishingly assured first novel. All too often, writing about music and musicians has the grace and believability of one of those Hollywood movies where the romantic lead laughably noodles away on some unfortunate instrument, or the director splices in footage of a double's nimble fingers to mask an actor's frenzied gesticulations. No such false chords are sounded here — Zabor has his chops down cold. Any stray notes in this improvisation are merely the result of a virtuoso stretching his theme to the limit. Lyrical, poignant, and utterly original, The Bear Comes Home is the best novel on the jazz life since the heyday of the Beat Generation. —Greg Marrs

Nashville in Review
Jazz is the great American art form. This is the great jazz novel. Do the math.
New Yorker
Zabor's knack for detail makes the absurd premise (a walking, talking, Blake- and Shakespeare-quoting bear) believable.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
New York's coterie of jazz musicians makes room for one large addition as a talking, thinking, alto sax-playing Kodiak bear arrives on the jazz scene in this hilarious, richly imagined bear's-eye view of love, music, alienation, manhood and humanity. The Bear and his friend Jones (who won him years earlier in a poker game) have been eking out a living through a degrading street act. Tired of that depressing circus shtick, the Bear begins sitting in with Arthur Blythe at a local jazz club. In addition to Blythe, Billy Hart, Lester Bowie, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman and other famous musicians become characters, and the Bear's musical ruminations bring Monk, Mingus, Parker, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Jackie McClean prominently into the novel. After an early gig gets him shot at, locked up and experimented upon, the Bear strives to avoid publicity even while touring and recording. He struggles painfully through his changing relationship with Jones, an interspecies love affair with beautiful Iris and the strange, alternately menacing and wonderful world of humans.

Drummer/journalist Zabor's invocation of jazz is impressive: far more than beguiling background noise, music is a dynamic presence in this story, central to the Bear's struggle, and Zabor's renderings of its inner dramas are daring and effective. If the romantic subplot is the weakest link in this very solid chain, the Bear's convincing interactions with Jones and the jazzmen show a shambling, cartoonish wit that recalls Pynchon at his most controlled. Best of all, the mystical, wisecracking, well-read, big-hearted, restless Bear comes vividly, enchantingly to life.

Library Journal
A frustrated saxophonist crashes a New York City nightclub gig, beginning a reputation as a much-talked-about, mysterious figure in the jazz world. Along the way, he goes through the rigors of touring, garners a recording contract, does time in prison, and wins the love of a good woman. Pretty standard fare? Wait, factor in that our hero is a real live walking and talking bear. Nothing wrong with that, but unlike William Kotzwinkle's recent The Bear Went Over the Mountain, which plays the 'bear about town' scenario for laughs, first-time novelist Zabor asks us to take the bear's odyssey fairly seriously, expecting us to accept the bear in these situations as easily as the book's characters do. This is a shame, because Zabor's scenes of musical life are vivid and knowledgeable, and his dialogue is uniformly excellent; adding that talking bear seems gimmicky and at odds with the effective reality of the work. With all this strong material, one wonders why the main character is a bear. Perhaps to sell more books? -- Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Library
The New Yorker
Zabor's knack for detail makes the absurd premise (a walking, talking, Blake- and Shakespeare-quoting bear) believable.
The Washington Post
Cuts straight to the heart of things. By turns wry and whimsical, by turns brave, sad, and questing, it's as profoundly affecting as a great jazz solo. . . .Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. Get The Bear.
Literary Review (U.K.)
This is a very ursine book. . . .Immensely strong with a set of claws that can rip your heart out in a blink.
Kirkus Reviews
Bewilderingly brilliant, frequently frustrating, archly hip debut about a mystically inclined, talking, alto sax-playing bear and the cruel, loving, or merely befuddled Manhattanites who ultimately help him achieve jazz satori. Taking more from Kafka than Disney, Zabor, a jazz drummer and music journalist, introduces us to the unusually gifted Bear, who is suffering the existential angst that comes from dancing and passing the hat on Manhattan's mean streets. One night Bear dons a raincoat and a dark hat, packs up his alto, and sneaks into a jazz club, where he jams with Lester Bowie and Art Blythe, who, like most human inhabitants of the cool, cynical, pearls-before-swine jazz world that Zabor knows so well, are more impressed with Bear's extraordinary sax chops than the fact that he's a bear that talks. Even Ornette Coleman is impressed, launching into a priceless speculation about the virtues of 'quadrupedal tone' versus 'two-footed music.' A subsequent club date, destined to become Bear's first album, ends in a police raid—evidently, animal acts, no matter how non-exploitative, require permits. So the Bear sits in jail, pining for fresh salmon while debating philosophy with a prison psychiatrist. Then jazz-world denizens join forces to spring Bear from jail, spiriting him off to Woodstock, where he can work on his album, ponder the mystical (but not physical—the eventual sex scenes are wonderfully gentle) impossibility of his love for a beautiful woman and prepare for his first tour. There are too many elliptical, navel-gazing meditations on mysticism, love, the imperfections of art—and on why the music business is so sleazy—but, thankfully, there are also momentsof satiric genius in Zabor's passionate portrait of an artist as a cool dude with fur.

Hip, flip, sexy, and worldy-wise, with walk-ons by Charlie Haden and other jazz celebrities: a first novel that has the makings of a cult smash.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.30(d)

What People are Saying About This

Mike Zwerin
The storytelling in A Bear Comes Home is wonderful. Impeccable taste, masterful prose, great sense of irony and sort of a new definition of alientation. Most of all, I don't recall having read such a poetic and accurate description of the jazz/improvising process, ever -- ever anywhere.
Josef Skvorecky
A tour de force that reads so well that after a while the reader completely forgets he is doing not with a human being, but with a Gegor Samsa metamorphosed into a John Coltrane. The incredible adventures of the horn-blowing bear left me mesmerized.

Meet the Author

Rafi Zabor is a writer and occasional jazz drummer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Bear Comes Home is his first novel.

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The Bear Comes Home 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm not kidding. I just logged on to buy my fourth and fifth copies of the book so that I can give one to a friend for her birthday and replace my last copy that I gave away... again. Whenever I give the book away I always make a 'Bear's Mixtape' to go along with it. I fill it with Coltrane, Davis, Blakey, and other jazz greats that the Bear would have played with. Also, this is NOT a fantasy book. If you're like me, you probably liked The Hobbit, especially when you were 13, but have since stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading sci-fi. Do NOT hesitate to buy The Bear Comes Home because you're a little more than skeptical of a book who's main character is a talking Kodiak. This book is about friendship, love, ostricization, jazz, and (oddly enough) the human condition. That the lead character is a bear provides a context for these stories to develop and affect the reader. My only criticism is that Zabor hasn't written another 'Bear' book. Enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The writing is very very good, the story interesting but the whole concept is more than a bit disturbing. I couldn't put it down by found myself shuddering at the love scenes. The Bear was a very complicated character, not exactly likable; he seemed very much like a few self-absorbed artist/geniuses I have known. Bears look cute and cuddly but his personality was anything but. All in all, a very interesting book that I'm sure had deeper meaning than I got out of it. Worth a few days of your time even if you care nothing about jazz. I wish I liked the characters more. The only one I was really sympathetic to was Jones. The author says in afterword that he hopes the book brings the reader inside the world of jazz music, and it certainly does that. The descriptions of the musical sessions and club dates absolutely took you there. I would read something else by this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down, and when I did it was because I felt like I needed to go practice my horn. I had never read a book that described the art of improvisation in such a descriptive and insightful way. The way Zabor involves real jazz musicians makes it seem all the more real. At times you even forget that you are reading about a bear at all (although the relationship with Iris is a constant reminder). A great book.