The rise and fall of novelist Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991) emerges in an offbeat way through real and imagined figures in his life.
The narrative moves fitfully through Kosinski’s life in five chapters that almost reluctantly form a mosaic of the whole man. The long opening section, the most charming of the quintet, touches on the entire span and the main characters that will follow. But it’s dominated by Peter Sellers and narrated by the actor’s driver as they seek an audience with Stan Laurel, dally with Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret, and then, for six years, pursue Kosinski’s blessing to let Sellers play the character Chance in the movie version of Being There. Charyn (A Loaded Gun, 2016, etc.) gives a chapter to Stalin’s daughter, who in fact lived next door to Kosinski in Princeton, looks into his strange marriage to an alcoholic heiress (her late husband changed here to the fictional Petroleum Jelly King), and revels in a dominatrix calling herself Anna Karenina who helps Kosinski, a patron of sex clubs, find the ideal editor. For a time, Kosinski was a darling of New York society, famed for colorful tales of his boyhood in wartime Poland—a period covered in the last chapter—and a serious artist, winning the 1969 National Book Award for Steps. Then came the 1982 Village Voice article that exposed his poor English skills and total reliance on the rewriting of secret editors. Charyn refers to the problem often—often enough to raise the question of how much schadenfreude is operating here.
Kosinki’s is a sad tale; he was a gifted raconteur except on the page in his chosen language, a flaw all the more obvious when conveyed through Charyn’s resourceful imagination and always-colorful, punchy, provocative prose.