Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485
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 musician. Despite his heavy drinking, he manages to juggle these jobs successfully. At the same time, he seems to be happy in his marriage and he obviously is solicitous of his children’s well-being, walking them to school and telling them jokes. Then he disappears. His old friend Webb, a detective, goes to see him, only to be told by Bolden’s wife, Nora, that Bolden has left her, his job, his writing, his music, everything. The central part of the novel is a detective story. To trace his friend, Webb goes first to the photographer Bellocq and manages to get a picture of Bolden from him. The picture, a group shot of Bolden’s band, is reproduced on the title page of the novel. Webb finally finds Bolden living with some old friends. He has been gone for nearly two years; in that time he has not played a note.
His return home is brief. Bolden is changed, erratic, and detached from his old life. A few days later, he joins a parade where his music somehow achieves all he has ever wanted it to be. “God this is what I wanted to play for, if no one else I always guessed there would be this.” That is when he goes mad. He is taken by train to the hospital, passing through little towns in northern Louisiana, including Slaughter, but in a larger sense Bolden has been coming through Slaughter all his life.
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