The Devil Tree
The Autograph Hound
Kosinski’s The Devil Tree offers us the life and thoughts of Jonathan James Whalen, a poor little rich boy returned from his Wanderjahre in Africa, Burma, and (yes) Katmandu to take up his burden of home-grown angst. Having made do on an allowance of $25,000 a month, he now, as the orphaned heir to a major steel fortune, has to learn how to be really rich, which isn’t so easy when you’re under thirty, just a little crazy, and mixed up about sex, drugs, your parents, death, and other bad trips.
Though it’s hard to be sure, I assume hopefully that Kosinski intends the cartoonlike effect he has created out of a melange of cut-up subjective and objective fragments. His people keep vanishing into formulas of language which substitute for identity. While the upper-class people talk in the idiom of the model letters in Emily Post, simpler souls obey simpler rules:
“Now, listen,” he said. “We’re gonna do the metropolitan area, see all the sights, and come right back here. No tricks. Start acting funny, and I’ll dump you out over the Statue of Liberty. Get it?” [a helicopter pilot who fears that Whalen means to hijack him to Cuba]
Of course, these guys know how to make their bread pay off. They visit a bitch in the middle of the night and rip off her jewelry, or maybe they convince some poor lonely queer that he should try sharing his stash if he wants to enjoy living a little longer. [a chiseler trying to involve Whalen in the “lost” travelers checks racket]
“How can you be so serious about this group and still play all those little games which cast us in roles you’ve devised?” [a girl in Whalen’s encounter group]
The voices are so relentlessly, and ineptly, “characteristic” that it becomes evident that no one except the novelist is really speaking. The idea that we have nothing to express but the dead conventions of language needs to be tested, if it is to be effective, against the way people really do talk. I can muster a chuckle when Whalen’s elusive girl friend talks like a spread in Vogue—
“I want to enjoy life, maybe even model. Be free to dash off to Paris, to go to Morocco for Christmas, to ski in Austria and Switzerland. To meet German, French, Italian men. To sip warm beer in Dublin pubs, and invite friends for dinner at my apartment in Rome. Now I have the chance and it won’t come again. I don’t want to waste time being miserable over an adolescent love affair”
—but if it’s all a joke, and not just the effect of a bad ear for American speech, the point is not clear enough.
Whalen himself is as thin a character as the people he encounters. His contradictions manage to be nasty without being surprising or stimulating: he feels detached from people but resents their detachment from him; he wants…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.