Book: The Bear Comes Home

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The Bear Comes Home

Author: Rafi Zabor
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

The hero of this sensational first novel is an alto sax virtuoso of John Coltrane/Sonny Rollins proportions. He also happens to be a walking, talking, philosophizing, Shakespeare- and Blake-quoting, one-woman-loving bear. The scion of a long line of European circus bears (and the product of an amazing roll of the genetic dice), the Bear, when we first meet him, is eking out a living doing an (ugh) street dancing bear act with his friend and keeper Jones. But what the Bear is really best at besides making himself cosmically miserable is blowing the sax. One day he makes a bold foray out to jam with Arthur Blythe and Lester Bowie at a New York club, thus beginning a musical (and romantic) odyssey. A semi-clandestine gig and a live album. A nightclub bust and long dark nights of the soul in the city’s dankest jail cell. Freedom, a recording contract, a road tour. A vexed, physically passionate interspecies love affair with a beautiful woman named Iris. And finally, a triumphant return to a jazz club inside the Brooklyn Bridge, where the Bear plays a solo that blasts him out of the space/time continuum and all the way back home. Lyrical, funny, wildly original, this is the best novel, ursine or human, on the jazz life in decades.


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.

—Mary Park

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