Coming through slaughter, p.1
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       Coming Through Slaughter, p.1

           Michael Ondaatje
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Coming Through Slaughter

  Praise for Coming Through Slaughter

  “A beautifully detailed story, perhaps the finest jazz novel ever written.” The Sunday Times

  “A remarkable piece of writing.… Brilliantly wrought.” Ken Adachi, The Toronto Star

  “Coming Through Slaughter is told so well—so stuffed full of the dolour and lust that both buoys and blemishes a life—it reads like a story dying to be told.… A classic psychological novel.… Because we enter the process, guided by Ondaatje’s shadowy narrator, we, like Bolden, come through something. We get at the bones of the thing.… Coming Through Slaughter displays a knowingness of the unspeakable and how we are each freighted with the dark particulars of history, with the obscene, terrible consequences of time and place goose-stepping us from birth to death.” Books in Canada

  “[Coming Through Slaughter] represents an imaginative feat of a high order: a transcending of cultural and racial and historical barriers.… The texture of the book itself has that fertile, driving, improvisational quality, rich with its own pleasure in language and human complexity.… A fictional work of uncompromising existential power.” Canadian Literature

  “The book moves very much like a dream; its complexity is in the way in which the dream is sometimes Bolden’s, sometimes his wife Nora’s, sometimes that of Bolden’s friends, sometimes Ondaatje’s, sometimes the reader’s. Always, when pure mood threatens to submerge the tale, Ondaatje counters with fact, historical incident, a verbatim fragment of an old jazzman’s recollection, and the novel never loses its balance.” Rolling Stone

  “The writing is so skilful that unlikely similes seem inevitable; whole sensations of a hot, ramshackle river town live in small phrases. There is a heartstopping description of Canal Street’s prostitutes; this is no clumsily romantic memoir of a ‘jazz age’ but something much harder.… Ondaatje describes the bizarre flashes of rage, an almost poetic tenderness and the inarticulate fire of music in a way that makes Bolden at once human and mythic.” New Musical Express

  “Ondaatje is surely one of our best writers.” Robertson Davies

  “Ondaatje packs an amazing amount into very few pages.… But he also gets down to the grit, giving us the smells and the textures, the atmosphere of brothels, the rasp of alcohol, the sweat of lovers, among which the imagined thought processes of the musician are slipped like concrete facts.… The cumulative effect is one of mesmeric rhythm somewhere between prose and poetry, a musical effect, with twists and turns and bursts of momentum.” Topical Books

  “The vignettes are precise and memorable.… The book combines the precision of Raymond Chandler with the intensity of a suicide note.… Marvellous.” Books in Canada

  “The downtown world of bars, whores, streetlife bursting with music is evoked so vividly, so pungently, you seem to breathe in the atmosphere.… I haven’t been so excited by a writer for a long time.” Time Out

  “A spectacular breakthrough into a new prose form.” Peter C. Newman, The Globe and Mail

  “Marvellously embroidered … vivid and arresting. Ondaatje’s oblique approach to Bolden’s mind is as resonant as it is ingenious.” Canadian Fiction Magazine

  “[Ondaatje] can make a phrase sing.” Guardian

  “Quick … vivid … sharply written. Ondaatje’s prose is detailed and exact, and at its finest each vignette, like a musical phrase, is intense and biting, unpredictable but appropriate.… Ondaatje fulfils his artistic obligations splendidly.” Malahat Review

  “Michael Ondaatje is a novelist with the heart of a poet.” Chicago Tribune


  Michael Ondaatje is a novelist and poet who lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of The English Patient, In the Skin of a Lion, Coming Through Slaughter, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid; four collections of poems, Handwriting, The Cinnamon Peeler, Secular Love, and There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do; and a memoir, Running in the Family. He received the Booker Prize for The English Patient.



  The English Patient 1992

  In the Skin of a Lion 1987

  Running in the Family (memoir) 1982

  Coming Through Slaughter 1976

  The Collected Works of Billy the Kid 1970


  Handwriting 1998

  The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems 1991

  Secular Love 1984

  There’s a Trick with a Knife

  I’m Learning to Do: Poems 1963–1978 1979

  First Vintage International Edition, March 1996

  Copyright © 1976 by Michael Ondaatje

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.

  Vintage Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Ondaatje, Michael, 1943–

  Coming through slaughter / Michael Ondaatje.

  —1st Vintage International ed.

  1. Bolden, Buddy, 1877–1931—Fiction.

  2. Jazz musicians—Louisiana—New Orleans—Fiction. I. Title.

  PR9199.3.05C65 1996

  813′.54—dc20 95-46416

  This page constitutes an extension of this copyright page.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-77661-7


  For Quintin and Griffin. For Stephen, Skyler, Tory and North. And in memory of John Thompson.



  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three



  About this Guide

  Three sonographs—pictures of dolphin sounds made by a machine that is more sensitive than the human ear. The top left sonograph shows a “squawk.” Squawks are common emotional expressions that have many frequencies or pitches, which are vocalized simultaneously. The top right sonograph is a whistle. Note that the number of frequencies is small and this gives a “pure” sound—not a squawk. Whistles are like personal signatures for dolphins and identify each dolphin as well as its location. The middle sonograph shows a dolphin making two kinds of signals simultaneously. The vertical stripes are echolocation clicks (sharp, multi-frequency sounds) and the dark, mountain-like humps are the signature whistles. No one knows how a dolphin makes both whistles and echolocation clicks simultaneously


  His geography.

  Float by in a car today and see the corner shops. The signs of the owners obliterated by brand names. Tassin’s Food Store which he lived opposite for a time surrounded by DRINK COCA COLA IN BOTTLES, BARG’S, or LAURA LEE’S TAVERN, the signs speckled in the sun, TOM MOORE, YELLOWSTONE, JAX, COCA COLA, COCA COLA, primary yellows and reds muted now against the white horizontal sheet wood walls. This district, the homes and stores, are a mile or so from the streets made marble by jazz. There are no songs about Gravier Street or Phillips or First or The Mount Ararat Missionary Baptist Church his mother lived next door to, just the names of the streets written vertically on the telephone poles or the letters sunk into pavement that you walk over, GRAVIER. A bit too stylish for the wooden houses almost falling down, the signs the porches and the steps broken through where no one sits outside now. It is farther away that you find Rampart Street, then higher up Basin Street, then one block higher Franklin.

  But here there is little recorded history, though tales of ‘The Swamp’ and ‘Smoky Row’, both notorious communities where about 100 black prostitutes from pre-puberty to their seventies would line the banquette to hustle, come down to us in fragments. Here the famous whore Bricktop Jackson carried a 15 inch knife and her lover John Miller had no left arm and wore a chain with an iron ball on the end to replace it—killed by Bricktop herself on December 7, 1861, because of his ‘bestial habits and ferocious manners’. ‘And here One-legged Duffy’ (born Mary Rich) was stabbed by her boyfriend and had her head beaten in with her own wooden leg. ‘And gamblers carrying cocaine to a game.’

  History was slow here. It was elsewhere in town, in the brothel district of Storyville, that one made and lost money—the black whores and musicians shipped in from the suburbs and the black customers refused. Where the price of a teenage virgin was $800 in 1860, where Dr Miles (who later went into the Alka Seltzer business) offered cures for gonorrhea. The women wore Gloria de Dijon and Marshall Neil roses and the whores sold ‘Goofer Dust’ and ‘Bend-Over Oil’ Money poured in, slid around. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, 2000 prostitutes were working regularly. There were at least 70 professional gamblers. 30 piano players took in several thousand each in weekly tips. Prostitution and its offshoots received a quarter of a million dollars of the public’s money a week.

  Tom Anderson, ‘The King of the District’, lived between Rampart and Franklin. Each year he published a Blue Book which listed every whore in New Orleans. This was the guide to the sporting district, listing alphabetically the white and then the black girls, from Martha Alice at 1200 Customhouse to Louisa Walter at 210 North Basin, and then the octoroons. The Blue Book and similar guides listed everything, and at any of the mansions you could go in with money and come out broke. No matter how much you took with you, you would lose it all in paying for extras. Such as watching an Oyster Dance—where a naked woman on a small stage danced alone to piano music. The best was Olivia the Oyster Dancer who would place a raw oyster on her forehead and lean back and shimmy it down all over her body without ever dropping it. The oyster would crisscross and move finally down to her instep. Then she would kick it high into the air and would catch it on her forehead and begin again. Or at 335 Customhouse (later named Iberville), the street he went crazy on, you could try your luck with French Emma’s ‘60 Second Plan’. Whoever could restrain his orgasm with her for a whole minute after penetration was excused the $2 payment. Emma allowed the odd success to encourage others but boasted privately that there was no man she couldn’t win. So no matter how much you took in you came out broke. Grace Hayes even had a pet raccoon she had trained to pick the pockets of her customers.

  Anderson was the closest thing to a patron that Bolden had, giving him money for the family and sending him, via runner boys, two bottles of whisky a day. To the left of Canal Street was Dago Tony who, at the height of Bolden’s popularity, sponsored him as well sending him Raleigh Rye and wine. And to the left of Canal are also the various homes of Bolden, still here today, away from the recorded history—the bleak washed out one-storey houses. Phillips, First, Gravier, Tassin’s Food Store, taverns open all day but the doors closed tight to keep out heat and sunlight. Circle and wind back and forth in your car and at First and Liberty is a corner house with an overhang roof above the wooden pavement, barber stripes on the posts that hold up the overhang. This is N. Joseph’s Shaving Parlor, the barber shop where Buddy Bolden worked.

  He puts the towel of steam over a face. Leaving holes for the mouth and the nose. Bolden walks off and talks with someone. A minute of hot meditation for the customer. After school, the kids come and watch the men being shaved. Applaud and whistle when each cut is finished. Place bets on whose face might be under the soap.

  N. Joseph’s Shaving Parlor. One large room with brothel wallpaper left over from Lula White’s Mahogany Hall. Two sinks with barber chairs in front of them, and along the wall several old donated armchairs where customers or more often just visitors sat talking and drinking. Pausing and tense when the alcohol ran out and drinking from the wooden coke racks until the next runner from Anderson or Dago Tony arrived, the new bottle travelling round the room including the half-shaved customer and the working Bolden, the bottle sucked empty after a couple of journeys, Bolden opening his throat muscles and taking it in so he was sometimes drunk by noon and would cut hair more flamboyantly. Close friends who needed cuts and shaves would come in early, well before noon.

  In the afternoon a stray customer might be put in the chair and lathered by someone more sober and then Bolden would fight back into the room protesting loudly to his accusers that he had nerves of steel, and so cut hair once more, or whatever came in the way. Humming loud he would crouch over his sweating victim and cut and cut, offering visions of new styles to the tilted man. He persuaded men out of ten year mustaches and simultaneously offered raw steaming scandal that brought up erections in the midst of their fear. As the afternoon went on he elaborated long seductions usually culminating in the story of Miss Jessie Orloff’s famous incident in a Canadian hotel during her last vacation. So friends came early to avoid the blood hunting razors of the afternoon. At 4 o clock in any case the shop closed down and he slept.

  It was a financial tragedy that sleep sobered Bolden up completely, that his mind on waking was clear as an empty road and he began to casually drink again although never hard now for he played in the evenings. He slept from 4 till 8. His day had begun at 7 when he walked the kids a mile to school buying them breakfast along the way at the fruit stands. A half hour’s walk and another 30 minutes for them to sit on the embankment and eat the huge meal of fruit. He taught them all he was thinking of or had heard, all he knew at the moment, treating them as adults, joking and teasing them with tall tales which they learned to sift down to the real. He gave himself completely to them during the walk, no barriers as they walked down the washed empty streets one on either side, their thin cool hands each holding onto a finger of his. Eventually they knew the politics of the street better than their teachers and he in turn learned the new street songs from them. By 8 they were at school and he took a bus back to Canal, then walked towards First, greeting everybody on his way to the shop.

  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. But his life at this time had a fine and precise balance to it, with a careful allotment of hours. A barber, publisher of The Cricket, a cornet player, good husband and father, and an infamous man about town. When he opened up the shop he was usually without customers for an hour or so and if there were any there they were usually ‘spiders’ with news for The Cricket. All the information he was given put unedited into the broadsheet. Then he cut hair till 4, then walked home and slept with Nora till 8, the two of them loving each other when they woke. And after dinner leaving for Masonic Hall or the Globe or wherever he was playing. Onto the stage.

  He was the best and the loudest and most loved jazzman of his time, but never professional in the brain. Unconcerned with the crack of the lip he threw out and held immense notes, could reach a force on the first note that attacked the ear. He was obsessed with the magic of air, those smells that turned neuter as they revolved in his lung then spat out in the chosen key. The way the side of his mouth would drag a net of air in and dress it in notes and make it last and last, yearning to leave it up there in the sky like air transformed into cloud. He could see the air, could tell where it was freshest in a room by the colour.

  And so arrived amateur and accidental with the band on the stage of Masonic Hall, bursting into jazz, hurdle after hurdle. A race during which he would stop and talk to the crowd. Urging the band to play so loud the music would float down the street, saying ‘Cornish, come on, put your hands through the window’. On into the night and into blue mornings, growing louder the notes burning through and off everyone and forgotten in the body because th
ey were swallowed by the next one after and Bolden and Lewis and Cornish and Mumford sending them forward and forth and forth till, as he could see them, their bursts of air were animals fighting in the room.

  With the utmost curiosity and faith he learned all he could about Nora Bass, questioning her long into the night about her past. Her body a system of emotions and triggers he got lost in. Every hair she lost in the bath, every dead cell she rubbed off on a towel. The way she went crazy sniffing steam from a cup of coffee. He was lost in the details, he could find no exact focus towards her. And so he drew her power over himself.

  Bolden could not put things in their place. What thrilled him beyond any measure was that she, for instance, believed in the sandman when putting the children to bed whereas even the children didn’t.

  Quick under the covers, the sandman’s coming down the street.

  Where where show us.

  He’s just stopped to get a drink. And the children groaned inwardly but went to bed anyway. For three years a whore before she married Bolden she had managed to save delicate rules and ceremonies for herself.

  But his own mind was helpless against every moment’s headline. He did nothing but leap into the mass of changes and explore them and all the tiny facets so that eventually he was almost completely governed by fears of certainty. He distrusted it in anyone but Nora for there it went to the spine, and yet he attacked it again and again in her, cruelly, hating it, the sure lanes of the probable. Breaking chairs and windows glass doors in fury at her certain answers.

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