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The Bear Comes Home

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  480 ratings  ·  69 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 480 pages
Published September 17th 1998 by W. W. Norton Company (first published July 1st 1997)
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3.91  · 
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 ·  480 ratings  ·  69 reviews

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Sep 25, 2016 marked it as to-read
Shelves: 20-ce, fiction, us
A portrait of the artist as a young bear. He's a jazz musician, an alto saxophonist of genius, with a rich inner life. The writing is without pretension and so far wholly chronological. Author Zabor has an astonishing ability not only to make jazz come alive on the page, but to catch his hero's most transient angst in mellifluous sentences. The Bear's inner voice, his self-loathing, runs deep and profound.

He becomes somewhat unhinged. He is falling, disintegrating when slammed in prison, for wh
Paul Secor
A jazz saxophonist bear who's trying to make it as a musician and who's trying to find a place in the human world. Even if we're not bears, I'm sure that many of us can identify with problems dealing with the latter endeavor.
The Bear Comes Home is a worthy effort but, for my tastes, it's way overwritten and could have used a good deal of editing.
On the positive side, it did get me listening to a lot of music I hadn't listened to in quite some time - some very good, some not as good - but I'm gla
Jun 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Besides the bear sex - notably less powerful than the ursinine lovemaking in Stanley Elkin's classic The Making of Ashenden (which stands beside/behind this book the way Kafka's Metamorphosis stands with the stories of Bruno Schulz) - what makes this novel revolutionary for me is its immense capacity for paraphrase. Meaning: jazz. I do not totally get it. But the descriptions of playing/practicing/listening in TBCH make my ignorance of the turtlenecked art unimportant, since they explain what's ...more
Alexis Hall
This is a jazz book - by which I mean, basically incomprehensible.

It is about a bear who plays the saxophone. And also about jazz. And, presumably, about some things, symbolic or otherwise.

It's weird as fuckity but I kind of love. I think you have to read it like the listen to jazz, you know? Not really looking for sense, just for something that means something to you, picking up your own patterns, your own beauties, within some that may seem strange, random, or discordant.

Also. Bear who plays t
Jeremy Maddux
Nov 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This remains one of my favorites. I read it in a darvocet-induced haze back in 2009 and it's one of the few things I remember from those days.

Rafi Zabor's Bear is alive in the way that Salinger's Holden Caulfield is alive. He thinks and feels, plays in smoky jazz clubs, earning the respect of his fellow musicians. It's easy to forget at times that we're reading about a bear, but of course, when he retreats back to nature around the middle of the book, we see him remembering the life he'd left be
Oct 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Simply the finest book on the experience of creating music that I've ever read. The Bear is a phenomenally compelling and sympathetic character, the milieu that he lives in is instantly recognizable, and the passages that cover gigging and recording are transcendent. I've personally bought and distributed at least 10 copies of this book (not counting the multiple personal copies I've bought to replace ones I loaned out to friends and never got back).

I have to admit to being a bit amused by the c
Apr 19, 2011 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: jazz lovers
I read this as a companion piece to Marian Engel's "The Bear," so I guess I'm now an expert on bear/human romantic relationships. (Until someone writes a book about a MAN who has an affaire with a female bear. Hmmm.)

I found this one to be often splendidly verbose, and often just plain wordy. After a while, I just slimmed the lengthy descriptions of numerous jazz performances. The female characters initially seemed interesting, but eventually seemed shallow and plot-driven. And though I felt a li
Eric Likkel
Mar 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
It's rare to find a jazz player who can articulate the experience of improvisation and ensemble playing so well through written language. Jazz critics are great at articulating what they hear, but in "The Bear...", Zabor writes from the perspective of the player. I enjoyed a crazy plot full of very believable characters, and it was humorous to me how Zabor acknowledged, through the encounters between the bear and various people in the story, the implausibility of a bear that not only talks, but ...more
Jun 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a delightful, bizarre, and somewhat challenging story this is! I found it on a list of "weird novels" that I stumbled upon online, a few of which I had already read and loved, and since I found that list, I've read and loved one other book besides this one, and placed several on my "to read" list. This gem is the story of a totally sentient talking bear and his struggles to cope in a world of humans. The story opens with the bear and his partner, Jones, entertaining groups of people on the ...more
Jul 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
A fascinating and enlightening novel about the sexes, the species, and music. You know, about life in general. I have to say that I've seldom been so excited by a novel while in the act of reading it. The characters live on the page, the evocation of life in the city, the country and on the road are vivid and exciting. The writing about everything, especially music, is terrific. The humor is genuinely funny, and the pathos is genuinely moving. Hell, there's even a listener's guide with informati ...more
Andy Oram
Oct 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature
For me, this book had everything. Characters I really want to follow through life. An engaging plot that works wonderfully by its own logic, even though (like so many contemporary novels) it's based on an oddball premise. Best of all, a deep communion with great music, expressed in luminous language (much better than my style in this review!). Jazz musicians can enjoy this as insiders, while people who don't know jazz would (I believe) run out and buy all the jazz recordings they could after rea ...more
Ryan Eshleman-Robles
Oct 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Three things kept this from being a five-star book for me:
1. I read it ten years too early.
2. I read it ten times too slowly.
3. I knew 10^10 too few jazz references.

Other than that, The Bear Comes Home will resonate with anyone (men more so, probably) who feels or has felt like a stranger in a strange land (i.e. everyone). Plus, the dialogue (inner- included) is exquisite. What On the Road could have been if Kerouac hadn't just made us all dizzy and nauseated.
Jul 07, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: jazz lovers
This is my 'must have' book for jazz lovers. It contains a bear, a saxaphone and a love story. What more could you ask for?

Written in a series of long riffs, like improv on the page Rafi Zabor actually pulls off the almost impossible task of writing jazz, rather than writing about jazz. If John Coltrane is your man, this is your book!
May 13, 2011 rated it did not like it
The precocious sheen fell off of my life in the late 90s. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that I checked out this book, what, ten years ago? I read it, quickly even, and remember finding fault with the jazz references. What could i have been thinking? Please, I hope my judgment doesn't allow any such wavers in the near future.
Jun 17, 2010 rated it liked it
One of the strangest books, in a good way, I've ever read, both in subject and in style. Sometimes the author is painfully verbose and sometimes so straight to the point and with such literary genius it makes you want to keep reading. I could think of a dozen ways to edit this book, but, overall an enjoyable read.
Mar 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literary, reviewed
So there's this talking bear, y'see, and when he's just a cub he gets separated from his talking bear mom and falls in with this down-on-his-luck jazz promoter named Jones. They live in squalor perform in the streets of New York for donations. But the Bear reads philosophy and learns to blow the alto sax. He is smarter than the av-er-age bear; erudite, ironic, perceptive and a hell of a musician. This book is funny, touching, authentic, engaging and above all musical. The Bear loves jazz. and th ...more
Feb 21, 2018 rated it liked it
The excitement, the energy, the highs and lows of creative music making are vividly captured in this alternatively captivating and frustrating books. The best moments make it practically essential reading to fans of jazz and improvised music. The rest of the book makes it very, very hard to recommend to anyone else.
Oct 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Nice story particularly if you like or want to learn about jazz. Sex a bit off putting.
Sep 26, 2015 rated it did not like it
Despite an entertaining and original premise – a talking, saxophone-playing, jazz-loving bear trying to make it as a bandleader – this book fails under its own weight. The nearly 500 pages are far too many, and the omnipresent jazz references, while entertaining and novel at first, quickly become dull. It doesn’t help that our protagonist (or any of the other characters we meet), is not all that likable or someone to relate to. At no point did I find myself cheering on the Bear, and more often t ...more
James Brush
Mar 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Rafi Zabor’s 1998 debut novel The Bear Comes Home is a tale of an up-and-coming NYC saxophone player and his quest to create a personal style that will build on rather than imitate his heroes Coltrane, Monk and Mingus. He also happens to be a walking, talking bear with opposable thumbs. His name’s The Bear, but friends call him Bear.

The Bear has the sensitive soul and single-minded obsessiveness of an artist struggling to find his voice. He’s also in love with a human woman, the law is after him
Jan 04, 2015 rated it it was ok
At the very least, I can say without hesitation that this was an interesting book. Zabor's reflections on the delicacy of relationships--human/bear and otherwise--and on the struggles of otherness to an extreme degree are quite analogous to identity conflicts most of us are more well-versed in (e.g., race, class, sexual orientation). The more intriguing characters and plot situations definitely leave a lot to chew on when you put the book down. Some of the better philosophical lines are simple b ...more
Chris Lopez-cepero
Aug 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A friend recommended this as a good read in advance of a trip to New York. By the time I'd read a hundred pages I was so enthused I recommended it to a handful of friends, even though i was fairly confident they wouldn't like it. I don't think I know anyone else who would like it, but it's just so fucking good.

It's about a talking bear whose true passion is jazz music. But it's not a lame allegory, and the author doesn't play it for surrealism. The prose sings, it's extremely referential in a pl
Mar 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Ya, you're probably wondering why I have it a five star rating when it took me just about the whole year to read it. It's because I liked it, and I thought it was a very good book. I'm the type that doesn't want to end books that I'm enjoying - separation anxiety. I am sure that there can't possibly be a book such as this again. Not an easy book to read; even with my music background; this book was musically technical using jazz lingo throughout and referring to the greats such as John Coltrane, ...more
Sep 26, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, book-club
Unusual fantasy about an alto sax playing bear in love with a woman (who reciprocates). We had a terrific book club discussion on this. In some ways it's another male middle-aged crisis, but also unique in its approach and marvelous in its language and description of the philosophy of identity. It's loaded with references to music, art, and literature. I wanted to read an annotated edition. Winner of the Pen Faulkner Award. Reminded me of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad in its treatm ...more
Tad Richards
May 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: hanaonawa
The best novel ever written about sex between humans and bears, easily beating out Bear by Marian Engel, not to be confused with Madeleine L'Engle, who never writes about sex with bears.

More significantly, the second best novel ever written on jazz, the best one being The Horn, by John Clellon Holmes. The bear's woodshedding experiences, his life on the road, his coming to understand jazz,and maybe best of all his meeting with Ornette Coleman in a club that's been raided because of a bear on the
Dec 10, 2007 rated it really liked it
Rafi Zabor is a jazz musician and music critic. Here, he crafts a widly inventive tale of a bear blessed -- or cursed -- with the genetic quirks of superb intelligence and a passion for the saxophone. Everything else in the book is deadly realistic. How the bear pursues his dreams, and suffers from his differences, makes the novel a fabulous read.

I also tagged this as a great book group. I thought it was -- but be prepared. Several people in my group were deeply offended by it. The bear, you see
Rory Foye McCarthy
Aug 20, 2016 rated it liked it
A good book that could have done with some violent editing.
It has a fantastic sense of humour and, at times, quite wonderfully playful prose, but you do get rather wearied by the seventh extended multiple-page description of what it feels like to play jazz. However, despite both the surreal conceit and the abundance of post-beat wankery, there is a real heart to this, and an author that's in love with his entirely believable characters. It's a good book; it could just serve to be a lot smaller.
May 22, 2013 marked it as to-read
Story about a jazz player who happens to be a bear.

I'm intrigued after hearing Spider Robinson's podcast review here (if I'm allowed to post the link): Also includes some jazz, which you can enjoy or skip according to taste, and a review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

More Spider Robinson here:
Jun 15, 2014 rated it it was ok
An interesting story premise, which ends up being a strange way to learn about ursine sexual anatomy. The book serves as a primer about jazz artists. Detailed descriptions about how a musician can get lost while playing music was interesting at first then became dull. This book might resonate more with someone who had a greater understanding of music. The details about music construction were lost on me and were cause to skip sections of the book.
Feb 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: musicians, philosophers
Recommended to Gerald by: A guy who plays
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. More...
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New one in the making 1 6 Sep 22, 2011 12:54PM  

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Rafi Zabor (born Joel Zaborovsky, August 22, 1946) is a Brooklyn, New York–based music journalist - and musician-turned-novelist.
Rafi Zabor was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He has worked and recorded as a jazz drummer and written about music for Musician, Playboy, and the Village Voice, and about dervishes in Istanbul for Harper's. His novel, The Bear Comes Home, won the PEN/Faulkner Awa