|Jerzy Kosinski, 1933-1991|
As I said above, Kosinski made for some grim reading. His first novel, The Painted Bird, chronicled the grotesque journey of a Polish boy during the Holocaust, a Jew, moving from village to village, trying to survive, and enduring and witnessing the absolute depths of human depravity and cruelty all along the way. One particularly disturbing scene: He hides in a outhouse, down in the muck--a scene, by the way, which found new life in the film Schindler's List (1993) and in the recent thriller Headhunters (2011). Nice when a good idea can find so many outlets.
And in Kosinski's Steps, one gross scene retains a clarity I wish it didn't. It involves an activity on the night streets of New York called "book-knockoff." A one-way street. Late at night. Books taped to the sides of random cars along the street. Here's how Kosinski describes the contest (for money): When signaled, a driver had to drive over the course at a minimum speed of fifty miles an hour and keep close enough to the cars with books taped to them for the bumper of his own car to dislodge as many of them as possible (124).
The narrator needs money. Enters the competition. He does well in a series of them. Gains a reputation. Then this ... There was a couple in one of the parked cars along the course. The roar of the passing cars and the angry revving of the engines must have disturbed them. Suddenly one threw open the car door and got out, standing there amazed, shielded momentarily by the door. In that instant a competing car rammed into the door, slamming it closed. The body disappeared. Only the head remained outside, as if balanced on the knife-edge of the door, then it rolled down and hit the asphalt like one more book that had been struck off (126-27).
National Book Award.
By the way, not long after Steps won that award, a wannabe writer named Chuck Ross, feeling the publishing industry was impossible to deal with, submitted--on two separate occasions--a re-typed copy of Steps to major publishing houses, claiming the work was his own (1975, 1979). In all cases: No one recognized the award-winning work; all publishers rejected it. (details about Ross' experiment)
But just when Kosinski's reputation was soaring, The Village Voice published an article accusing him of plagiarism, lying, employing ghost writers. Although a number of major newspapers defended him, his reputation suffered nonetheless. He had been vague, even deceptive, about his own wartime experiences in Poland (he'd more than suggested that The Painted Bird came from his own life); his career did seem so ... improbable. Coming here as a very young man, knowing no English, soon publishing novels in English, winning literary awards ...
But it all ended on 3 May 1991, when his wife found him in the bathtub, dead, a plastic bag tied around his head. Later reports noted that his blood had contained alcohol and opiates. He had not been well--had feared becoming a burden on his wife. He was fifty-seven years old.
He'd already had a weird brush with death. Had it not been for some lost bags on a flight, he would have been in the house of Roman Polanski the night in 1969 when Charles Manson's murderous crew showed up.
But we must wonder, too, about the effect of the loss of his literary reputation. Remember Michael Cassio in Othello, his own reputation in ruins? In Act II, Scene 3, he cries out to his supposed friend Iago:
Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation!