Coming Through Slaughter

Coming Through Slaughter

by Michael Ondaatje


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Bringing to life the fabulous, colorful panorama of New Orleans in the first flush of the jazz era, this book tells the story of Buddy Bolden, the first of the great trumpet players—some say the originator of jazz—who was, in any case, the genius, the guiding spirit, and the king of that time and place.

In this fictionalized meditation, Bolden, an unrecorded father of Jazz, remains throughout a tantalizingly ungraspable phantom, the central mysteries of his life, his art, and his madness remaining felt but never quite pinned down. Ondaatje's prose is at times startlingly lyrical, and as he chases Bolden through documents and scenes, the novel partakes of the very best sort of modern detective novel—one where the enigma is never resolved, but allowed to manifest in its fullness. Though more 'experimental' in form than either The English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion, it is a fitting addition to the renowned Ondaatje oeuvre.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393087659
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/1977
Pages: 156

About the Author

MICHAEL ONDAATJE is the author of six previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil's Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. We hope they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to consider this lively, haunting and seductive novel.

1. Although he is one of jazz music's legends and the finest cornet player of his time, little is actually known about Charles "Buddy" Bolden or his life. Why do you think Ondaatje chose Bolden as his protagonist? What does the author mean when he says, "Did not want to pose in your accent but think in your brain and body—"? (p. 135)

2. The story is told in many fragments and many voices: Actual accounts of Bolden's life and performances, oral history, lists of songs, biographical facts, narrative, dialogue, interior monologues, psychiatric reports, bits of poetry and lyrics, the author's own voice. How does Ondaatje's arrangement of the different 'voices' affect the way you perceive Bolden's life? Why do you think he chose this way of telling his story?

3. New Orleans and vicinity at the turn of the century is the setting for the novel. Consider the places where the action occurs: N. Joseph's Shaving Parlor, the river, Shell Beach, the Brewitts, Webb's cottage, the streets of Storyville, Bellocq's studio, Bolden's home with Nora and the children, the mental hospital. Consider some of the metaphorical or symbolic aspects of these settings. What do they reveal about Bolden's journey and his inner life?

4. Bolden's life "had a fine and precise balance to it, with a careful allotment of hours." (p. 7) He was barber, publisher of The Cricket, cornet player, good husband and father, and an infamous man about town. Do you agree that his life was balanced? What upset the balance?

5. "This is the power I live in— They trust me with the cold razor at the vein under their ears. Dreams of the neck. Gushing onto the floor and my white apron." (p. 43) Does Bolden wield this power, or is he, like his audience, under its sway?

6. "Robin and Jaelin and me. I saw an awful thing among us. And that was passion could twist around and choose someone else just like that—. We had no order among ourselves. I wouldn't let myself control the world of my music because I had no power over anything else that went on around me, in or around my body." (pp. 97-98) Consider the complex relationship between power, control, fear, and desire in the novel. What role do each of these play in Buddy's ensuing madness?

7. "He watched himself go back to the Brewitts and ask if he could stay with them. The silent ones. Post music. After ambition." (p. 34) Do you see Bolden's move to the Brewitts as positive or negative? "The silence of Jaelin Brewitt understood them all." (p. 62) How do Jaelin Brewitt and Bolden differ? What do they have in common? Does Bolden admire Jaelin?

8. "Then Bolden did a merciless thing. For the first time he used his cornet as jewelry. After the couple had closed their door, he slipped in a mouthpiece—. With every sweet stylised gesture that he knew no one could see he aimed for the gentlest music he knew—Music for the three of them, the other two in bed, not saying a word." (p. 28) What does it mean that he used his cornet as jewelry, and why was it merciless?

9. "The Pickett incident had made him unpopular. Buddy didn't leave at the peak of his glory you know." (p.73) Explore what happens to Bolden during the Pickett incident. Is it a turning point for Bolden?

10. Water in all its forms—liquid, rain, mist, ice—is a recurring image in the novel. Think of the ice and the mist on the windows of N. Joseph's Shaving Parlor and what happens after the fight with Tom Pickett. Or of Bolden's departure by boat. Or how, at the Brewitts, Bolden immerses himself in the bath at the beginning and end of his stays. What does the water imagery tell us about what is happening to him? Is water a safe element for Bolden?

11. "E.J. Bellocq's photographs—were an inspiration of mood and character. Private and fictional magnets drew him and Bolden together." (from the author's acknowledgements, p. 162) Bolden says of Bellocq, "He was the first person I met who had absolutely no interest in my music." (p. 55) Why was Bolden attracted to Bellocq? Why does Nora blame Bellocq for what happens to Bolden? Do you think she's right?

12. What does Bolden mean when he says, "We were furnished rooms and Bellocq was a window looking out"? (p. 56) Why does Bolden want to break windows? And why does a "wall of wire barrier glass" go up between Robin and Bolden after Webb comes to get him "with all his stories about me and Nora, about Gravier and Phillip Street"? (p. 83)

13. Nora's mother's favourite Audubon birds: the Purple Gallinule with "thoughts of self-destruction"; the Prophet Ibis, "obviously paranoid"; the Cerulean Wood Warbler, "drunk on Spanish Mulberry"; and Anhinga, the Water Turkey which "would hide by submerging—forgetting to breathe, and so drown." (pp. 19-20) Discuss these birds in light of Bolden's personality.

14. The novel is divided into three main parts. Explore how the style of each section reflects the content. Does each section have something different to convey? Could the novel be compared to a musical composition?

15. "That is the first time I ever heard hymns and blues cooked up together— The picture kept changing with the music. It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil—. If Bolden stops on the hymn, the Good Lord wins. If he stops on the blues, the Devil wins." (p. 78) What does this tell us about Bolden and his music?

16. Think of Bolden's final performance in the parade. Who is the woman who dances before him? What happens to him during his final performance, and why, when it's over, does he say to himself, "What I wanted." (p. 132)

17. "What he did too little of was sleep and what he did too much of was drink and many interpreted his later crack-up as a morality tale of a talent that debauched itself." (p. 7) Was Bolden's descent into madness as simple as that? Does the novel help us understand what happened to him?

18. What is the "slaughter" referred to in the book's title?

19. Bolden's return to New Orleans: "on the third day old friends came in, shy, then too loud as they entertained him with the sort of stories he loved to hear, stories he could predict now. He sat back with just his face laughing at the jokes." (p. 119) What has changed in Bolden? Is his decision to return and play in the parade life-affirming?

20. "While I have used real names and characters and historical situations—There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts—expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction." (from the credits and acknowledgements, p. (163) What does the author mean by the truth of fiction? Can you think of other novels, by Ondaatje or others, that have borrowed from historical record to tell a story?

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Coming Through Slaughter 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
laurie weisberg More than 1 year ago
Love the story a great mix of Fact and Fiction I love this writer Elsieswift
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read the damn book
briandarvell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I didn't find this book as exciting or enjoyable as many others seem to have found it. It was a bit confusing and surreal in description. Perhaps this is a style design by Ondaatje but I would have trouble recommending this book to others.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a hypnotizing book written in prose that alternately sounds like poetry and feels like a soft blues song. It is dirty, sweet, heartbreaking, and candid all at once. Ondaatje has masterfully woven a reality of his own around the few bare facts known about the jazz player Buddy Bolden, creating fiction that feels like nonfiction that reads like fiction. In the end, this a book about life and about art, and what both can mean separately or taken together. It's not a traditional novel, and it's got more than its share of darkness, so it isn't for everyone, but if you're looking for a book that brings on a New Orleans atmosphere and explores the world of an unknown artist who lives with each moment, this is a phenomenal read that effectively takes you back in time with graceful playful language. Truly, this is also by far the most sensuous novel I've ever read---Ondaatje is here aware of all five senses on every page, and he commits to writing each of them, subtly, so that this is sure to reach any reader with its language if not with its character. I recommend this work whole-heartedly.
kidzdoc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The cornetist Buddy Bolden (1877-1931) is widely credited as being one of the creators of the music now known as jazz. He was born in New Orleans and formed a band in 1895, which was centered in the red light district known as Storyville and soon became one of the most popular ones in the city (Bolden is seen with his band, standing second from the left in this 1905 photograph). He was influenced by ragtime music, the blues and music from the church, and combined these elements into a unique form which was later termed "jazz". Bolden was a man of several trades, working as a barber and the publisher of a scandalous paper based on information he received from his customers and friends. Unfortunately he was also plagued by alcoholism and mental illness, and his health deteriorated in 1906, when his band was at the peak of its popularity. He suffered an acute mental breakdown the following year, and was admitted to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he was confined for the remainder of his life.Michael Ondaatje, a confessed lover of jazz, provides us with a fictionalized account of the life of Buddy Bolden, in the form of an improvised riff led by a childhood friend, who became a police officer outside of town and came back to investigate Bolden's increasingly bizarre behavior and downfall. Ondaatje provides the reader with foggy and staccato-like glimpses of Bolden, his wife and mistress, and several other characters who were close to him, including the photographer E.J. Bellocq, who gained fame and notoriety by photographing the prostitutes of Storyville. Although this was an interesting technique, it did not work for me, as the main character became an elusive spirit who came into and out of focus, which prevented me from understanding the man, his music or his troubled life. This was a commendable effort, but one which frustrated and will quickly be forgotten by this reader.
jensho on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not much is known about the real history of Jazz great Buddy Bolden and it is difficult to find a well written acount of his life and death. This is a great read even if you are not a jazz afficianado.
anabellebf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A haunting book that's worth taking the time to decipher... but also just to enjoy the use of language, which is very poetical. Must read, and must read AGAIN.
jentifer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great novel about jazz, written by a poet. I've tried to describe this novel many times with no success. It really just needs to be read; gorgeous language and writing style.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago