JERZY KOSINSKI takes on some new subject matter-- polo, horsemanship and public sex-- in his seventh novel, Passion Play, yet these things are not really his new territory. What he presents are the further psychological adventures of the Kosinski hero, who is now as recognizable as the Hemingway hero used to be. But what is genuinely new in Passion Play is that Kosinski's hero grows older; and we are treated to the continuing struggles of the boy from The Painted Bird who became the man from Steps, as he jousts quixotically with (as usual) women and death, loses some of his hair, and enters into a crisis of middle age and lost youth.
There is no nostalgia in this. That's not in Kosinski's emotional kitbag. But in the book's final pages, and particularly in its final image, which I will not reveal here, there is an earned poignancy whose like I have not encountered in Kosinski's work since The Painted Bird.
This book does not really resemble that first novel, which made its author's reputation; it is more in line with his last three books, The Devil Tree, Cockpit and Blind Date. Passion Play is still episodic, though even here Kosinski seems to be charting new stylistic territory-- he has become willfully lyrical, and he is much plottier than usual, though his plot creaks and squeaks badly at times.
It creaks for it seems he has turned to the connective tissue of plot only because he's been chided too often for being fragmented and disjointed. And it seems a half-hearted turn. He still is far more interested in discrete incidents than he is in continuity. As he explained in an interview last year, an "incident is simply a moment of life's drama of which we are aware as it takes place," whereas a plot is an "artificially imposed notion of preordained 'destiny' that usually dismisses the importance of life's each moment. Yet, that moment carries the essence of our life."
Passion Play has a man named Fabian as its hero, an outlaw polo player (outlaw because he's too good, too violent for the formal play of the game and its effete practitioners), who is trying to survive at free-lance polo and riding instruction. He travels around the country, encountering mostly the rich at their games, and he is challenged often, professionally and personally, by women as well as men. That Fabian is almost always more than the equal of his challengers is the norm of the Kosinski hero.
At certain moments Fabian so resembles the real Kosinski, as have all his other heroes, that one is tempted to consider this yet another quasi-autobiographical work. But it is more than that, to be sure. Passion Play is a work of both invention and astute observation: the polo matches that Fabian plays, for instance; or the spectacle he observes and joins in New York's Ansonia-type baths where orgiastic sex on a large scale may be had for the price of admission-- a lurid and comic portrait at the outer limits of this pornographic age, pornographically told.
Here again the Hemingway-Kosinski analogy works because of the high-level journalistic element in the book. The specifics of a one-on-one polo match, or Fabian's dramatic entry into a jumping competition in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, seem as fully understood, as lovingly savored, and as meticulously recorded as were the trout and marlin expeditions, the bullfighting and duckshooting that so enthralled Hemingway. I've neither played polo nor shot a duck, but I am persuaded that these two writers have told me how it is when it is exquisitely done.
Kosinski has often argued that success is really only an interlude between failures. And yet his heroes succeed with great consistency at the tasks before them, not always through playing by the rules. If they do call the shots in their lives, he once said, "It is because most of them are desperate to find out who they are. And if this requires freeing oneself from an outer oppression, then some of them have trained themselves to fend off the threat of society using complex bureaucratic means as well as camouflage, disguises, escapes and so forth."
In Passion Play Fabian has trained himself to be a superb horseman, a seducer on the order of Don Juan, but with decidedly kinky tendencies (check out his menage with the beautiful latent lesbian, and the gorgeous hermaphroditic transsexual). His horsemanship is real and Kosinski of late has himself become a horseman, but in the novel it is also allegorical: a man astride life, astride his totem, along with his knowledge and his skills, tilting against the world.
The image is as romantic as it is solipsistic and the two notions fuse once again in Kosinski's romance of the self-as-survivor. It is romantic because he makes the world too frequently manipulable. His heroes are warriors who survive (maybe with scars) every battle, however bloody. It is solipsistic because the hero is not capable of love as giving, love as selflessness.
Fabian is a taker, like his predecessors. Women exist only to be seduced, or to serve as his reflecting pool. Even that latent lesbian never utters a word to explain herself and what is done to her, to let us know what she thinks of what must surely be the greatest sexual surprise of her life. While that rare menage is in process, Kosinski devotes full attention to Fabian and Fabian's analysis of all the sexual goings-on. But he does not give any real life to either of Fabian's sexual partners. They exist merely as props in a passing show.
Fabian does live by a rigid personal code of righteousness, but rarely does this transcend self-interest. Even his compassion for the sick and dying seems chiefly a memory aide to his own mortality. At book's end during his affair with the teenaged Vanessa he does perform an act that he perceives to be selfless. But then he sees the act has been a mistake, and he changes radically.
It is here, when Fabian discovers that his selfless act was really a devastating miscalculation about himself, that he engages us as fully human, as something other than the manipulative satyr Kosinski has made him out to be. And it is in building to this humanity that Kosinski's plot succeeds; for it counters all that his hero ostensibly professes, that Kosinski himself has always professed. And it is this insight into Fabian that seems to indicate a new direction for this most solipsistic American author.
What I sense from this work that I did not find in his other fiction is a softening of the Kosinski line, which perhaps both the lyricism and the plotting also represent. It all seems like an effort to convey something beyond the stark Spartan warrior mentality, an admission of failure not against greater odds, but through emotional vulnerability.
What seems new is Kosinski's interest in unmanipulable life, life in which the protagonist is neither victim nor hero but a spiritual substance subject to forces that can neither be challenged directly nor can be more than barely understood. Kosinski has always believed in chance as an overwhelming element in human conduct, but his heroes have either resisted it, outmaneuvered it, or taken revenge against its messengers. It is the placement of the hero in a condition where the enemy is vaporous, indefinable, that gives Kosinski a new direction.
The Kosinski hero is unique in literature, and he has lived a fearful and unsettling life until now. The author can surely continue diagramming his survival tactics in the solitary cat-and-mouse games he has always played, but this risks eventual self-parody and a literary hemophilia that no transfusion of new subject matter such as polo or horsemanship could counterbalance.
The new direction, if it is more than an aberrational moment in the hero's career, holds far more promise. It anticipates profound involvement not against but with others, and it demands the definition of those others in a way that would be new for both Kosinski and his hero. If Kosinski is ready, so are we.