Michael Ondaatje won’t stay put. I’ve followed him from San Francisco (Divisadero) to Sri Lanka–one of his native lands–(Anil’s Ghost) to the bowels of a Sri Lanka-to-England-to-Canada cruise ship (Cat’s Table) to historical Toronto (Skin of a Lion) and finally to New Orleans for Coming Through Slaughter. Every Journey has been full of edification and delight.
Before Louis Armstrong and all of them there was Buddy Bolden, said to be the hottest trumpeter in all the Big Easy. He was never recorded, his active days being done before the technology was available. However, his legend was, well, legendary. Buddy grew up and lived, naturally, in the Storyville section of the city, where you could shop for prostitutes in a directory not only by name and address but by race and skin shade. Buddy fell in love with one, married her, had a couple of kids. He cut hair by day, played his horn by night.
He was an erratic guy, turning up here and there whenever it suited him. He played with some groups, or rather alongside them. Sort of what the pre-school handbooks call “Parallel Play.” Many times the other players didn’t know when he would start or stop or understand what he did in between. When it came parade time, he preferred to wait along the line of march, then jump in some place or another, either in concert or completely beyond the parameters of whatever group was marching beside or behind him. Not everyone loved what he played, but they all applauded his skill and inventiveness, and they agreed no one was louder.
We know little more about his life than we know about the sound of his music. He was said to be here. Be there. Disappeared for a couple of years. Reappeared. Moved in with his wife and her new partner. Resumed an affair with the wife of a friend. Perhaps. And here’s where Ondaatje’s genius makes Coming Through Slaughter such a superb piece of writing. Our knowledge of Bolden’s life is elliptical, full of spaces, and so is Ondaatje’s prose. Diving beneath the surface, coming up again, looking around. Searching. Moving toward shore or toward somewhere. Perhaps toward the sound of a voice. We often aren’t sure whose.
Webb twenty and Bolden seventeen . . . they spend all their money on girls … stock beer, gradually paste their characters on to one another.
First, in Bolden’s voice, a skinny dip with his friend’s wife. . .
Below our heads all the evil dark swimming creatures are waiting to brush us into nightmare into heart attack to suck us under into the darkness into the complications . . . Swimming towards the sounds of madness.
Then, in someone else’s voice ..
See Tom picket.
Cos he, cos Buddy cut him up.
The narrative ties together, but not in an easily distinguishable pattern. Just as Buddy Bolden’s life and music–what we know of it–are not plain and simple.
We do know that Bolden finally went mad and was incarcerated in the East Louisiana State Hospital. To get there, you had (have to?) to go through a town called Slaughter. That’s the metaphor of the title, which Ondaatje saves till almost the end, unless you know it already. It’s during this period of imprisonment that Ondaatje presents some of the documentation behind his story–tape recordings, mostly, memories of Bolden from acquaintances, fellow musicians. It makes for an odd post script–though not really a post script because it’s essential to the story–but entirely fitting for this odd and fascinating story told by one of the supreme writers of our day.