MOST OF Pinball takes place in the South Bronx, as desolate an urban landscape as any this side of Pompeii: burned-out buildings and empty streets haunted chiefly by predatory juveniles. Also burned out, as the book opens, are its hero, Patrick Domostroy, and the battery of his car, which he takes to a garage for recharging. Clearly, we are wandering through a forest of symbols.
Domostroy (who resembles Jerzy Kosinski about as much as a washed-up composer can resemble a successful novelist) lives in this wasteland, all alone, in an abandoned dance hall named the Old Glory (another symbol). He was a composer of serious music, widely acclaimed at the height of his success 10 years ago, but his battery has gone dead and he has dropped out of society. Now, he earns a scant living as an accompanist, playing the piano (or accordion, harpsichord, even a synthesizer) in small, out-of-the-way nightclubs frequented by solitary men who watch television or play pinball and electronic games while waiting to pick up women. His life is "fairly simple and devoid of anguish," free "from the deceptive security of accumulated wealth and the chimera of success." His music, recorded by a company called Etude Classics, is kept in circulation. But he no longer knows whether he likes it or not.
This quiet life is disrupted as the novel begins by a young woman named Andrea Gwynplaine, a student at the Juilliard School who seems to have plenty of money and is willing to spend it on an odd quest: to track down and identify a mysterious rock star known only as Goddard who never appears in public but has enjoyed enormous success on records. She enlists Domostroy to find him partly because Goddard's record company, Nokturn, is affiliated with Etude, but also because it seems appropriate to use one reclusive musical genius to catch another.
She succeeds, after a fashion and with disastrous results, in a plot as highly convoluted as the novel's symbolism. Ultimately, this doesn't matter much. What matters, I suppose, is that Kosinski, who has managed to do very well by writing what is essentially the same novel over and over again, has come up with a significant variation on his standard themes and personalities, a few new twists in the almost inhuman behavior patterns of his protagonists. His modality this time is a transfer of the writing business into the music business. Domostroy, for example, has been an officer in an international musicians' organization much like PEN, the writers' organization in which Kosinski has served with distinction. And some of the details about the elusive Goddard may remind readers of the only slightly less shadowy Thomas Pynchon.
As part of his very detailed background for Pinball, Kosinski displays an uncommon familiarity with music and the music business, particularly the compositions of Chopin and some advanced problems in performance practice and technique. Clearly, he is profiting from the fact that his mother was a concert pianist, but he also uses his wide friendship among musicians--notably the late Goddard Lieberson, who was an accomplished composer as well as the head of CBS Masterworks records. The mysterious Goddard in Pinball owes something to Lieberson--not only his name but some motifs in his music. He also owes something to Karlheinz Stockhausen, as does Kosinski, who has constructed his novel, in a way, like a Stockhausen composition and derives some of his mystique from the German composer's philosophy of indeterminacy:
"To Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose electronic compositions so clearly influenced Goddard, a musical event was without a determined beginning or an inevitable end; it was neither a consequence of anything that preceded it nor a cause of anything to follow; it was eternity, attainable at any moment, not at the end of time.
"Weren't life's events like that too? Domostroy wondered."
Whether or not they are in life, they certainly are in a Kosinski novel. The characters wander about--not aimlessly but still more or less blindly, bumping into one another and into miscellaneous obstacles that may or may not have a meaning, achieving a real human contact only briefly, more or less by accident and with a fear or revulsion that quickly drives them apart.
Like the game that gives his novel its name and some basic motifs and techniques, there is something inhuman about Kosinski's writing and his characters--an inhumanity that he himself recognizes and emphasizes. His style of writing is dry and sometimes slightly awkward. He makes no real effort to enliven his scenes by standard techniques known to anyone who has taken an elementary course in creative writing. His characters are remote (even--perhaps especially--when they seem to be representing the author), viewed with pitiless objectivity and through a sharply focused long-distance lens.
Kosinski treats his characters (and they usually treat one another) as objects. Not that the story lacks intense feeling--quite the contrary--but it is intense feeling fixed on a slide to be examined under a microscope. Below the cold-seeming exterior, the feelings in this story seem too hot to be approached closely. And so the author retreats (like his hero in the Old Glory) into a kind of abstraction. And he writes mostly about people who are able to relate only in terms of trickery--hiding secrets, telling lies and callously manipulating one another. As it has been so often in Kosinski's books since The Painted Bird, the most pervasive human relation in Pinball seems to be that of victim and victimizer.
There is one exception in this novel, a young black pianist named Donna Downes, whom Domostroy befriends, trains for the Chopin competition in Warsaw and finally seduces (in a memorable scene, on a piano bench, while she continues to play Chopin until the trembling of her hands makes it impossible to go on). After achieving real intimacy for the only time in the book, he sends her off to Warsaw alone, and she triumphs--perhaps because the sexual awakening has given her temperament the last fine-tuning it needs to win a competition. In the last scene, Domostroy is back in an out-of-the-way bar, watching his protege's triumphal return on television, resolving not to keep an appointment with her and to break off a relationship that has become dangerously close.
The book's final paragraph shows Domostroy turning to pinball to kill time and perhaps indulge in a bit of symbolism: "He dropped a coin into the slot. Where GAME OVER had been a second before, BEGIN GAME now began to flash at him. He pressed the button, and the first ball popped up into the shaft, but for a moment Patrick Domostroy could not make up his mind whether to play it or not. "
Or can it be an image of Jerzy Kosinski deliberating whether to start writing the same novel yet again?