Jerzy Kosinski’s career makes a farce out of the notion of artistic progression. His first novel, 1965’s The Painted Bird, is the most talented and realistic literary horror novel I’ve yet read. His last, 1988’s The Hermit Of 69th Street, is a dislocated series of private pleas and belligerent defenses.
His second novel, Steps, is a series of thematically linked vignettes, and the revenge the protagonist was unable to formulate and enact in The Painted Bird was dramatically rendered in that novel’s follow-up.1973’s The Devil Tree is also structured in brief episodes, but as a fractured narrative. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth between shocking action and lacerating interior criticism doesn’t work organically, or with any narrative momentum. Repetition dulls the more lurid effects, and one already gets the sense that Kosinski has played his best hands early in his career.
I believe it’s at least partly circumstantial. By 1973, burrowing into self-exploration had morphed from a psychedelic game into a painful picking at scabs. Kosinski’s forte – psychological revelation under extreme and sudden violence – had given way to this much different obsession, and Kosinski couldn’t find a way to successfully transform the two directions in a unique vision. Worse, Kosinski’s amoral anti-hero, Whalen, had already been done more convincingly by a number of authors before the 70s, including Camus and Dreiser in different modes.
But the fearless chronicler of hypocrisy, upper-class coldness, and perversion still knocks it out of the park in several episodes, including one in which Whalen’s father fires his loyal servant of twenty years for changing the blade in the master’s razor one day too early.
As for the charges of plagiarism directed at the Polish emigrant, it’s no wonder revenge played a part in most of his stories. After surviving World War II, only to land in a free country rife with jealous orchestrators of the unfounded, cowardly attack (though some of those pipsqueaks also originated in Poland), Kosinski could only lash back in his art. Unfortunately, his most open attempt to settle the record came when his mental health had already plummeted. Though he had been fighting his demons longer than the first of the personal literary attacks took hold, his last novel was a narrow, emasculated response to his accusers. The Devil Tree’s original epigraph, also appearing in the novel’s last pages, is scarily accurate when turned on Kosinski: “the devil, getting tangled in its branches, punished the tree by reversing it”.