As Rafi Zabor's PEN-Faulkner Award-winning
novel opens, the Bear shuffles and jigs with a chain through his nose, rolling in the gutter, letting his partner wrestle him to the ground for the crowd's enjoyment. But as soon becomes clear, this is no ordinary dancing bear. "I mean, dance is all right, even street dance. It's the poetry of the body, flesh aspiring to grace or inviting the spirit in to visit," he muses, but before all else, the Bear's heart belongs to jazz. This is, in fact, one alto-sax-playing, Shakespeare-allusion-dropping, mystically inclined Bear, and he's finally fed up with passing the hat. One night he sneaks out to a jazz club and joins a jam session. On the strength of the next day's write-up in the Village Voice
, the Bear begins to play around town and hobnob with some of jazz's real-life greats. A live album, a police raid, a jailbreak, a cross-country tour, and no small amount of fame later, Bear finds himself in love with a human woman--and staring down the greatest improbability of all.
Admittedly, a novel about a talking, sax-blowing bear may not initially seem everyone's cup of tea, but Zabor's Bear is no cuddly anthropomorph: "I may be wearing a hat and a raincoat, thought the Bear, but no one's gonna mistake me for Paddington." He lives, he suffers, he loves--in fact, the love scenes come as something of a shock, and not just for the usual interspecies reasons. Who knew that the description of a bear's reproductive mechanisms could be so tender or so unabashedly erotic? Most of all, though, The Bear Comes Home evokes the world of improvisational jazz with consummate skill; Zabor, a longtime jazz journalist and drummer, writes about music with a passion and inspiration seldom found on the printed page. A wistful fable about an artist's coming of age, a brilliantly satiric send-up of the music business and jazz criticism, The Bear Comes Home is a debut much like that of the Bear himself: transcendent, unexpected, wise.
From Library Journal
A frustrated saxophonist crashes a New York City nightclub gig, beginning a reputation as a much-talked-about, mysterious figure in the jazz world. Along the way, he goes through the rigors of touring, garners a recording contract, does time in prison, and wins the love of a good woman. Pretty standard fare? Wait?factor in that our hero is a real live walking and talking bear. Nothing wrong with that, but unlike William Kotzwinkle's recent The Bear Went Over the Mountain (LJ 6/1/96), which plays the "bear about town" scenario for laughs, first novelist Zabor asks us to take the bear's odyssey fairly seriously, expecting us to accept the bear in these situations as easily as the book's characters do. This is a shame, because Zabor's scenes of musical life are vivid and knowledgeable, and his dialog is uniformly excellent; adding that talking bear seems gimmicky and at odds with the effective reality of the work. With all this strong material, one wonders why the main character is a bear. Perhaps to sell more books? For larger fiction collections.-?Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., Pa.
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