20 greatest works of fiction about New Orleans

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Coming Through Slaughter (Cover image via Vintage Canada)

7. Coming Through Slaughter

Do you still want a fix of some good New Orleans jazz? While you’re firing up your best Dixieland record, you might also want to reach for Coming Through Slaughter, by renowned Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. This 1976 novel even attempts to replicate the rhythm and structure of jazz in the prose itself.

Ondaatje goes way back, focusing on Buddy Bolden, the musician who is often credited as one of the inventors of jazz. While it’s a novel, the book isn’t entirely fiction. Some of the central facts of Bolden’s life remain, including his dwindling sanity in the early 20th century.

It got so bad that the real-life Bolden suffered a psychotic episode in 1907, brought on by alcoholism and resulting in a diagnosis of schizophrenia (then known as dementia praecox). At the age of only 30, Bolden was admitted into a mental institution, where he remained until his death in late 1931.

Bolden was known for his improvisational style and loud, attention-getting sound. His looser manner when playing ragtime and blues led to the development of jazz as its own genre. In tune with that trend, Ondaatje’s prose is also freewheeling and loose, getting more and more syncopated as Bolden’s story unwinds.

Coming Through Slaughter also focuses on E.J. Bellocq, a real photographer who is best remembered for his portraits of sex workers in Storyville, New Orleans’ red light district. Like Bolden, Bellocq also toes the line between creativity and his own self-destruction. Of course, Ondaatje also feels free to play with the history of both men and the city itself, but to great artistic effect.