Coming Through Slaughter chronicles the life of Buddy Bolden, one of the founders of Dixieland jazz. Little factual material is known about Bolden, who lived in poverty and played cornet in the Storyville district of New Orleans during the 1890’s. From the fragmentary evidence produced by his research, Ondaatje portrays Bolden as a man driven by the demands of his art, as well as by his human attachment to his family and friends. Tension mounts in Bolden until he feels forced to disappear. He reappears briefly and returns to his music, but the stress is too much for him, and he is precipitated into madness. Bolden was born in 1876; in 1907, he was committed to an insane asylum, where he died in 1931.
As in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems, Ondaatje tells the story through shifting points of view, sometimes speaking as Bolden himself, sometimes through Bolden’s friend Webb, the detective who finds Bolden when he disappears. Even E. J. Bellocq, the historical photographer who documented New Orleans life in the late nineteenth century, has a voice. Once again, Ondaatje explores the isolation of the artist, and once again he is uninterested in the sociological implications of his subject. Bolden’s oppressed position as a black musician and his poverty are never explicitly discussed.
The novel’s early sections portray Bolden as a lively man, a barber and writer for a local broadside as well as a...
(The entire section is 485 words.)