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