"Coming Through Slaughter” by Michael Ondaatje talks about the life of New Orleans jazz pioneer Charles (Buddy) Bolden. The story is rich and tragic as based on the life of the main character that had multiple roles; he was a famous jazz musician, journalist, barber, and family man. However, he ends up insane and dies institutionalized. The author tries to capture Bolden’s thoughts and actions by creating the setting of New Orleans at the prime time of jazz. He creates a vivid picture in the reader’s mind since he has a strong mastery of the elements of styles and themes not forgetting his poetic experience. The name Slaughter comes from the last town Bolden visited before committing himself to the mental institution. It is relevant to many events of the book.
A brief summary of the plot involves Bolden disappearing after fighting with his customer, Tom Pickett, in the barber shop where he worked when it was revealed that he had an affair with Bolden’s wife Nora Bass. Detective Webb finds out that Bolden is living in Shell beach with Jaelin and Robin Brewitt. The latter is a couple, but Bolden is having an affair with Robin. Webb visits photographer Bellocq and finds that Bolden convinces whores to pose naked for the photographer. When the detective finds Bolden, he goes up insane.
There are various themes developed in the book such as the theme of fame, sexual immorality, violence, and alcoholism. Among these themes, it all starts with the love for music, then fame; as we know, Bolden enjoys a lot of fame because he is a musician, journalist as well as a barber.
However, the main theme is the idea of the setting a slaughter. Sexual immorality was highly rampant in New Orleans at that time. Acceptance of promiscuity is a vice that led to spiraling of other evils. The book clearly explains the matter of the ‘mattress whores’ who were kicked out of Storyville for showing symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases; their ankles were literally broken by their pimps. This is to make sure that they will not come back to Storyville, and their bodies will be left to rot with disease. Bolden’s promiscuity was another slaughter. Having been a regular visitor of Storyville, marrying a whore, and cheating, his interest for jazz disappeared and instead, he became obsessed with sex. At some point, Bolden is thinking that he desires every woman he remembers.
The obsession with sex led to feelings of suspicion, jealousy, and competition among men. It is clearly depicted in the fight between Bolden and the man he suspected to be having an affair with his wife. After the fight, both end up with emotional and physical slaughter. Competition also existed among the jazz musicians.
Fame, which is also the main theme in the book, is another source of slaughter. Bolden could not do anything making him more famous. His thoughts on his way to New Orleans were “all my life I seemed to be a parcel on a bus. I am the famous fucker. I am the famous barber. I am the famous cornet player Read the labels. The labels are coming home.” Bolden got fed up with labels and got a new crippled introverted acquaintance; Bellocq who was not interested in his music. Bolden seemed to be in control of the new relationship since he was the one who convinced prostitutes to pose naked for his perverted friend. Bolden was getting exposed to a strange way of life; a man who enjoyed an enormous publicity was stuck with an introvert. Bellocq committed suicide after Bolden disappeared. These two destroyed each other by flaunting what the other one lacked and desired.
The book presents the society with a skewed sense of morality riddled with evils that come with fame. Bolden plunged into deeper madness and finally, reached his breaking point because of too many negative excesses. At the end of this book, one is left wondering what is better – fame or the normal life.