Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Book Review: The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor

Musician Michael Bolger recommended this book to me, and I can see why. It's as much about the inner musings of jazz musicians as Vikram Seth's An Equal Music gets inside the heads of classical chamber players. Jeez, I thought I'd graduated from the college of musical knowledge, but most of this stuff was way out, man. Fascinating, uh, I guess. When Zabor's main character--who just happens to be a bear (in literal form, as well as in mood)--flips into one of his head trips as he's playing his alto sax, I can dig that he's doing an homage to Sonny Rollins, but I get lost in the details of the arpeggios, riffs, and modulations. The Bear apparently is on a metaphysical quest, wondering what it is to be human and then, as if that's not challenging enough for a furry quadruped, how to grasp the transcendent, in love and in music.

Boychik lit this isn't, but it's close. I'd say it's more like bugbear lit, which kind of sums up the Bear's dilemma. One definition of bugbear is "a thing that causes excessive anxiety." And the Bear is certainly anxious--anxious about the quality of his playing, about being incarcerated for impersonating a human, about his late royalty checks (been there!), about being a friend, and about being a caring lover (and not of other furry beasts--don't read if you're squeamish about the details, which are more than vivid).

Mentor to the screenwriting stars Lew Hunter advises never to read anything in the same genre you happen to be writing at the time. I broke that rule with this, it being a philosophical comic novel, as I was finishing up the manuscript on Rubber Babes, the sequel to My Inflatable Friend and the second installment of Rollo Hemphill's misadventures. I don't think much of it percolated through. Zabor's style is more Thomas Pynchon or Tom Robbins, ambling and meandering around like a big old bear, and going off into baroque disgressions much like a jazz artist. I guess I'm more straight-ahead. Anyhow, I did develop a sympathy for the author's task in just plotting this beastly sized book. The thing is huge. I'm a fast reader and it took me for-ever! I read on Wikipedia that Zabor started it in 1979, had the first few chapters serialized in Musician magazine, abandoned the work for fourteen years, wrote assiduously for another four, and finally took his dump in 1997. Wow, let it go, dude! As a selfish reader, I could have wished for it to be a series of novels, which might have been more easily digestible.

Another affinity, I suppose, is that Rubber Babes is about paranoia--that dark, musty cave whence anxiety emanates. (It's just a heightened state of awareness, you know.)

Well, this furry, fuzzy, jazzy story won the PEN/Faulkner Award. So if music be the food of love and rent checks, play on, Bear.