THE YOUNG HAVE gone to hell, needless to say, and Jerzy Kosinski was muttering why.
His novel, "Being There" is really a beastly attack on the press, but maybe Jerzy (pronounced Jersey) didn't want to hammer on that when a fine upstanding reporter was drinking coffee with him.
"This fellow in your book," the dialogue began, "is not awfully bright, is he?"
"No," said Kosinski, "it's just that all the politicians think he is. He has grown up totally isolated, working in a rich man's garden, tending to the watering of plants, and he's never been out of the garden and the little cell he sleeps in."
He has no identity, no feeling, no thought of his own. He is nothing but a spasm of fitful images drawn from television.
But fate is strange. Circumstances throw this innocent gardener with an IQ of 74 into the great world, where he is promptly run over by a lady in a limousine.
She picks him up and takes him to her mansion. The fellow says, honestly enough, that he is Chance. The fellow says, honestly enough, that he is Chance, dener.
"Ah, Chauncey, Gardiner," says his hosts, while he recovers at the mansion from being run over by the limousine.
In no time he is introduced around in the high society of his hosts. One day the president of the United States visits his host, and Chance says something dumb, about the importance of not chopping the roots off a plant.
The president picks up this remark and uses it in a major address, crediting it to Chauncey Gardiner and in no time the press is running around trying to find this wonderful Mr. Gardiner who has the president's ear and obviously advises him on state matters.
One thing leads to another, and once the press gets through promoting Chauncey Gardiner, in a vast series of articles that go on and on about him without telling you anything, the novel closes with Chauncey Gardiner about to be nominated vice president of the United States.
"Well," the vistor said "there's one thing you have to say for the press and the president. Chance's comments, about not chopping off the roots and so on, are at least true. And there's as much wisdom in old Chance's babbling about roots and watering cans as in the gestalted jabber of the high set he's moving in."
"Right," said Jerzy.
Not only can the press promote a nitwit to high office, in other words, but the nitwit will do about as well as anybody else.
"Who was your model for Chance?" he was asked.
"He's sort of a composite of the young men I taught at Princeton and then at Yale."
"They really are something to behold," the visitor agreed. "Where the hell do you think they come from?"
"God knows," Jerzy agreed. "You can't get any response out of them. It's because of television and the way they're trained, I think. They grow up sitting there gaping and flipping channels and by the time they get to Princeton they have no touch with reality," he went on.
"The student health office got upset because all the students were dropping in asking for Valium (a tranquilizer, and, like television, dangerously addictive) before going to my classes."
"Good Lord," the visitor cried. "What were you doing to those kids to throw them on Valium?"
"Listen," said this major author, "that's exactly what I began to ask myself. Maybe there was something about me, about my manner, that was scaring them to death. It turned out I made them nervous by not telling them at the beginning of the lecture, "Today we will talk about so-and-so.'"
"Ah," said the visitor. "No wonder. You didn't tell them what you were going to tell them. That's because you grew up in Poland. Here we have a sound rule for instructing people. First you tell them what you're going to tell them, then you tell them, then you tell them what you've told them."
"Oh, said Jerzy. "Well, anyhow, I made them very nervous."
"Another thing," said his visitor, "you look at them."
"Of course I looked at them when I was talking to them, trying to teach them, Jerzy said.
"Well, you can't do that. They think you're going to attack them if you look right at them."
"That's true," Jerzy admitted. "They're all there in a heap. They aren't individuals, and I think I did scare them looking directly at them. They don't look at each other."
Of course. As all older persons have noticed. They hover about in packs, held together by pheromones of consciousness as a group, perhaps through the astrology columns in newspapers shameless enough to print them.
"Like a heap of puppies," said Kiki, a handsome woman and great friend of Jerzy Kosinski's.
There you have it. God only knows the future of the republic.
Needless to say, some of the young are less ectoplasmic than others. Some of them glimmer a little, like a lightning bug at dusk. For example:
"Hi," says Jerzy Kosinski. (The scene has changed. He has returned to New York from his trip to Washington where a crew has been making a movie about Chance, the gardener. He is back in New York and says he found some gloves left by his visitor and they can be picked up at the Madison Hotel.)
"Hi," says the former visitor. "You sold your new novel yet?"
"I'm ready to start pedding it. But did you hear about that young guy in California who typed up one of my novels and sent it around to publishers like a new manuscript?"
"No. Was he plagiarizing?"
"Not at all. Much worse than that. He typed out my book and sent it to every publisher of the East Coast.
"Every last one of them turned it down," Jerzy said.
"How could they turn it down?" said the fellow -- look, "I" am the "visitor" and lets just say "I" from here on.
"How could they turn it down. You won the National Book Award, and you get compared to Conrad and Kafka and deMaupassant, and Time talks about your savage purity and The New York Times says you're coiled like a serpent to strike us like a lucid gem and..."
"I know, I know," said Jerzy. "They said it about the very book the guy typed out and submitted to all these publishers. And every one turned it down. The thing that hurt, my own publisher who in fact did publish the book (Random House, which published "Steps" in 1968) turned it down along with the rest."
"Of course," I said. "The young fellow sending your manuscript around probably isn't named Jerzy Kosinski. Maybe that makes a difference."
"All I know is it makes me feel kind of funny," said Jerzy, "just when I'm trying to peddle my new novel myself."
"Listen Jerzy," I said. "What the hell do publishers know about books. Look at 'Look Homeward, Angel,' that went to 27 publishers before Scribner's finally accepted it. Look at 'Joy of Cooking.' Bobbs-Merrill lives off it now. Look at...."
"I know," he said. "But nobody would accept this guy's retyping of my book. Nobody."
"Those superannuated clods," I said. "The last two books any publisher read for pleasure were 'Water-Babies' and 'Grace Abounding' and they didn't understand but one.
"Don't worry your brain about those pictosauric yo-yo's that publish books. All they do is drink alexanders with research assistants and they wouldn't know a master from a mop bucket if their lives depended on it.
"Then whom should you rely on? Look, Jerzy, you rely on the same ones Shakespeare and Chaucer relied on. The same ones Austen and Conrad and Gaskell and Cervantes relied on: the bright youngsters out there with fresh eyes and untainted hearts. Haven't they always been the ones to embrace art? Not your codified pterodactyls in the guise of publishers.
"You got nothing to worry about. The young are the ones that take your books to bed with them. You can trust them, you're safe with their unclouded judgment, free of cliques and catchy bull." They level with a writer and they think you're the greatest."
Thank God, you can count on the young who read. A few good men in school -- not 20 years old yet -- are worth more to a fine writer than all the old crocks still looking for another wind to be gone with.
I think he felt a lot better, once we really analyzed what a bunch of old jobbernowls publishers are, and put our faith in the innocent youthful reader, not the jaded money-maker.
I hope my gloves are still there.