1. Although he is one of jazz music''s legends
and the finest cornet player of his time, little is actually known
about Charles "Buddy" Bolden or his life. Why do you think Ondaatje
chose Bolden as his protagonist? What does the author mean when he
says, "Did not want to pose in your accent but think in your brain
and body-"? (p. 135)
2. The story is told in many fragments and many voices: Actual
accounts of Bolden''s life and performances, oral history, lists of
songs, biographical facts, narrative, dialogue, interior
monologues, psychiatric reports, bits of poetry and lyrics, the
author''s own voice. How does Ondaatje''s arrangement of the
different ''voices'' affect the way you perceive Bolden''s life?
Why do you think he chose this way of telling his story?
3. New Orleans and vicinity at the turn of the century is the
setting for the novel. Consider the places where the action occurs:
N. Joseph''s Shaving Parlor, the river, Shell Beach, the Brewitts,
Webb''s cottage, the streets of Storyville, Bellocq''s studio,
Bolden''s home with Nora and the children, the mental hospital.
Consider some of the metaphorical or symbolic aspects of these
settings. What do they reveal about Bolden''s journey and his inner
4. Bolden''s life "had a fine and precise balance to it, with a
careful allotment of hours." (p. 7) He was barber, publisher of The
Cricket, cornet player, good husband and father, and an infamous
man about town. Do you agree that his life was balanced? What upset
5. "This is the power I live in- They trust me with the cold
razor at the vein under their ears. Dreams of the neck. Gushing
onto the floor and my white apron." (p. 43) Does Bolden wield this
power, or is he, like his audience, under its sway?
6. "Robin and Jaelin and me. I saw an awful
thing among us. And that was passion could twist around and choose
someone else just like that-. We had no order among ourselves. I
wouldn''t let myself control the world of my music because I had no
power over anything else that went on around me, in or around my
body." (pp. 97-98) Consider the complex relationship between power,
control, fear, and desire in the novel. What role do each of these
play in Buddy''s ensuing madness?
7. "He watched himself go back to the Brewitts and ask if he
could stay with them. The silent ones. Post music. After ambition."
(p. 34) Do you see Bolden''s move to the Brewitts as positive or
negative? "The silence of Jaelin Brewitt understood them all." (p.
62) How do Jaelin Brewitt and Bolden differ? What do they have in
common? Does Bolden admire Jaelin?
8. "Then Bolden did a merciless thing. For the first time he
used his cornet as jewelry. After the couple had closed their door,
he slipped in a mouthpiece-. With every sweet stylised gesture that
he knew no one could see he aimed for the gentlest music he
knew-Music for the three of them, the other two in bed, not saying
a word." (p. 28) What does it mean that he used his cornet as
jewelry, and why was it merciless?
9. "The Pickett incident had made him unpopular. Buddy didn''t
leave at the peak of his glory you know." (p.73) Explore what
happens to Bolden during the Pickett incident. Is it a turning
point for Bolden?
10. Water in all its forms-liquid, rain, mist,
ice-is a recurring image in the novel. Think of the ice and the
mist on the windows of N. Joseph''s Shaving Parlor and what happens
after the fight with Tom Pickett. Or of Bolden''s departure by
boat. Or how, at the Brewitts, Bolden immerses himself in the bath
at the beginning and end of his stays. What does the water imagery
tell us about what is happening to him? Is water a safe element for
11. "E.J. Bellocq''s photographs-were an inspiration of mood and
character. Private and fictional magnets drew him and Bolden
together." (from the author''s acknowledgements, p. 162) Bolden
says of Bellocq, "He was the first person I met who had absolutely
no interest in my music." (p. 55) Why was Bolden attracted to
Bellocq? Why does Nora blame Bellocq for what happens to Bolden? Do
you think she''s right?
12. What does Bolden mean when he says, "We were furnished rooms
and Bellocq was a window looking out"? (p. 56) Why does Bolden want
to break windows? And why does a "wall of wire barrier glass" go up
between Robin and Bolden after Webb comes to get him "with all his
stories about me and Nora, about Gravier and Phillip Street"? (p.
13. Nora''s mother''s favourite Audubon birds: the Purple
Gallinule with "thoughts of self-destruction"; the Prophet Ibis,
"obviously paranoid"; the Cerulean Wood Warbler, "drunk on Spanish
Mulberry"; and Anhinga, the Water Turkey which "would hide by
submerging-forgetting to breathe, and so drown." (pp. 19-20)
Discuss these birds in light of Bolden''s personality.
14. The novel is divided into three main parts. Explore how the
style of each section reflects the content. Does each section have
something different to convey? Could the novel be compared to a
15. "That is the first time I ever heard hymns and blues cooked
up together- The picture kept changing with the music. It sounded
like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil-. If Bolden stops
on the hymn, the Good Lord wins. If he stops on the blues, the
Devil wins." (p. 78) What does this tell us about Bolden and his
16. Think of Bolden''s final performance in the
parade. Who is the woman who dances before him? What happens to him
during his final performance, and why, when it''s over, does he say
to himself, "What I wanted." (p. 132)
17. "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." (p. 7) Was
Bolden''s descent into madness as simple as that? Does the novel
help us understand what happened to him?
18. What is the "slaughter" referred to in the book''s
19. Bolden''s return to New Orleans: "on the third day old
friends came in, shy, then too loud as they entertained him with
the sort of stories he loved to hear, stories he could predict now.
He sat back with just his face laughing at the jokes." (p. 119)
What has changed in Bolden? Is his decision to return and play in
the parade life-affirming?
20. "While I have used real names and characters and historical
situations-There have been some date changes, some characters
brought together, and some facts-expanded or polished to suit the
truth of fiction." (from the credits and acknowledgements, p. (163)
What does the author mean by the truth of fiction? Can you think of
other novels, by Ondaatje or others, that have borrowed from
historical record to tell a story?