Ondaatje is a Canadian poet (the stunning Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and his first full-length stretch of prose is one of the more successful resolutions of a poet/novelist identity crisis. The life of pioneer jazz musician Charles (Buddy) Belden, 1876?-1931, gives Ondaatje his charged, raw material: Buddy's hyperactive New Orleans good times—daytime barber, nighttime cornet man, fulltime editor of The Cricket, a gossip-news-crime sheet for "the District"—and his descent into the bad times when "he didn't want to meet anybody he knew again, ever in his life." When that happens, Buddy leaves wife Norah and two kids, disappears for two years (an uneasy menage a trois with a married couple), and, tracked down by old copfriend Webb, returns in time to join a parade, go berserk, and spend the last 25 years of his life in East Louisiana State Hospital—"Dementia Praecox. Paranoid Type." The narrative mosaic incorporates pronoun-switching, flashes forward, back, and sideways, slivers of authentic documents and interview transcripts, free verse, and free association, but, with near-miraculous control, Ondaatje fends off any artsy confusion about who, where, when, or what is happening. That's his triumph; his downfall is that, despite the lusty milieu, the freewheeling passions, and the vivid, fact-based characters (like Bellocq, photographer of prostitutes and self-arsonist), Buddy Bolden's life never seems as real, immediate, or important as the elaborate variations on it.
Read full book review >