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January/February 1998

Rafi Zabor
The Bear Comes Home

Is the creative musician really a different manner of beast? The alto-playing, talking grizzly bear anti-hero of this dark, grudgingly appealing novel stands as a perfectly imperfect metaphor for the artist as outsider: curmudgeonly, aloof, self-absorbed, pained, misunderstood, yes, but a gifted post-bopper, surviving by dint of wit and tenacity—and talk. In this talky book “the Bear”—lone among his human friends, bandmates and lovers—analyze, kid, and worry each other ad nauseam. Occasionally dialogue quickens to hilarity, such as the band’s first leg of a bus tour, but even these acerbic pyrotechnics are verbal jams, road trash, killin’ time.

Gig and session segments—few and far between—are worth the wait: Zabor writes them with intuition, grace, and an insider’s vision. (Elsewhere he exhibits descriptive skills, nice turns of phrase, an eye for nature.) Cameos by prominent musicians—Billy Hart, Charlie Haden, Lester Bowie—tend to ring true, both in personal and musical contexts. Accounts of unfolding improvisations, the magic and stuff of music, glimmer vividly, more alive and in real time than most of the sluggish going. “Love” scenes and other interpersonal encounters—though handled with tenderness, awe and respect—drag on in grueling self-consciousness, eating up the “bear’s share” of space. It’s almost an ironic flip of Ars longa, vita brevis. Bear wallows in his mud bath of everyday emotions; he may rise to a bright epiphany blowing a Coltrane blues, but can’t quite figure who’s on first base in his life.

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