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Jonathan, Benny, and Solitude

The Devil Tree

by Jerzy Kosinski
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 208 pp., $6.95

The Autograph Hound

by John Lahr
Knopf, 239 pp., $6.95

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 to give charity to Bowery bums but is ruthless with his friends and subordinates when they fail to please; his painful memories of his brutal and self-indulgent parents don’t inhibit his own indulgences and extreme, if sometimes subtle, brutality. But his monstrosity isn’t qualified by anything interesting or affecting in his relentlessly trivial efforts at self-analysis, which run to insights like “if I am to know myself, I will have to confront my contradictions and admit the impact of my childhood,” “my predilection for self-repression, not liberation, was heightened [by drugs],” “I had always wanted to conceal both portions of my own personality: the manipulative, malevolent adult who deceives and destroys; and the child who craves acceptance and love.”

It’s no great feat of the imagination to enter a mind like that—taken straight, The Devil Tree fails to make one care about its hero’s difficulties. Read another way, as a novel about the materials of contemporary “alienation,” the stuff our culture offers to replace an authentic sense of self, it’s more interesting. Whatever else he lacks, Whalen has power—he is sustained by possessions, the objects, sensations, and people his money can buy. He has measured out his life in racing sand boats, skin-diving gear, gliders, Fords with twelve-cylinder Italian engines, tape recorders, calculators, multi-channel TVs, porn movies, high-style whores, encounter groups, French chefs, and private bodyguards, and we may well wonder why he’s so unhappy. But however he exploits them, the materials of modern life give him no pleasure. As a (second-generation) capitalist, he recognizes the world as his product and finds it dreadful; I assume that somewhere Hegel and Marx are smiling.

As an ideological statement, the book makes some sense. An epigraph from Proust—“When we think we are lying our words foretell an imminent reality”—readies us for a fiction in which deceit, cruel practical jokes, sexual sadism, and social bullying figure as the private life’s version of the essential criminality of the public world, with its piratical capitalism, police brutality, petty fraud, and where the drug traffic and child rape are the order of the day. Whalen’s story begins with his faking a murder in Burma (where he tortures his current mistress by making her think he’s killed an older woman whom he had in fact only sent off to England on a paid vacation) and ends with an apparently real murder, when he lures his conventional godparents onto an East African sand bar and maroons them. (But since this a novel in which mere “facts” have no status, I don’t know whether they really die there.) This incident is distractingly entangled in a “death by water” theme—Whalen’s father and a childhood friend named Peter drowned (separately), his mother entered terminal madness on her yacht, etc.—but the empty symbolism doesn’t wholly spoil the fun of watching a criminal world impose its ways on a new generation.

Presumably Kosinski is thinking about how the “legitimate” political-economic order, founded on aggression, declines into the petty violence of postcapitalist reality, where the heirs, bored by the indulgences of material freedom, re-enact the acquisitive experience in more visibly and literally destructive ways, all in the name of “self-realization.” Whalen’s yearning for risk in a society dedicated to abolishing even inconvenience makes a useful comment on the politics and pleasures of the young. But if this is the point (and it may not be, for all I know), I wish Kosinski had found a better way to make it.

John Lahr’s The Autograph Hound chronicles a few days in the life of Benny Walsh, a middle-aged bus boy in an elegantly vulgar New York restaurant. Physically soft, myopic, shy of women, and disdainful of ordinary human desires, Benny lives in and for his collection of 2,376 autographs, which he keeps neatly filed and indexed in his room. The pursuit of new ones provides his small, undemanding spirit with all the stimulation it needs:

Horn & Hardart’s is around the corner, but once in a while it’s fun to camp out. Sometimes the construction workers leave a steel drum lying around. Moonstone and Sypher tip it up and fill it with paper. The New York Times is across the street, and leftover Sunday supplements burn like birch bark. We get a pretty good fire going. We take turns keeping watch—one person at each end of the alley. That way, on 44th Street we cover Sardi’s, the Playbill Bar and Grill, and the Royal Manhattan, and on 45th Street the Piccadilly, the Theatre Bar, and the Scandia. The stories they tell around the fire! Somebody should write them up, like the time we roasted marshmallows on the aerial from George Hamilton’s Mercedes 300SL.

The author may have just a touch of condescension toward Benny’s innocence, but the mind being imagined is still credible and touching.

That mind will be familiar to those of us who keep up with movies, television, rock music, sports, the popular press, investing our underexercised feelings in celebrities and their glamorous hyper-reality. Except for some scattered memories of sandlot humiliations and of a possessive mother (now dying, almost unnoticed, in an old-age home in Asbury Park), Benny lacks a past. His present, too, is diminished, outside his collecting—it’s 1969, men are landing on the moon, protesters are in the streets, the Mets are winning, but only Judy Garland’s funeral really gets to him.

His fellow collectors and his coworkers at the restaurant concern him only as they assist or frustrate his hobby. His new (very platonic) girl friend Gloria, whose “thing” is looking and dressing like Joan Crawford while she “stars” in a make-your-own-skinflick parlor, interests him only as a prospective convert. He gets fired for pestering the customers for signatures; needing money, he’s quite ready to donate his body to science, but he draws the line at selling some of his collection. He lives only through “the media,” through his contacts with the great.

Autographs are only the tangible record of these contacts. Benny scorns amateurs, mere enthusiasts content with signatures alone. Autographs are an art, you must know about the lives you’re allowed a piece of, an autograph without a firm, scholarly provenance is just ink on paper. Benny thrives in the fullness of his knowledge about his heroic patrons, in the professional’s sense of a mastery that dwarfs the competition—a cab driver smugly certain that he’s Frank Sinatra’s double (Benny slashes his seats), Sypher, who goes in for quantity and sells all he gets to support his sex habit, Moon-stone, who only collects rock stars.

Benny is the Rochefoucauld of media-living, and his aphorisms ring true as crystal:

It wouldn’t be good if everybody was a star. If everybody was equal that wouldn’t be American.

This is the way it should be with the stars. You should see them. Then they should disappear.

No screaming, no impertinent hunger for intimacy, no yearning for a cut. The true believer doesn’t ask to move in with God; he’s perfectly satisfied with flashes of revelation in the darkness. It’s the immanence of glamor that matters, and Benny has no time for the sterile antiquarianism that covets the written remains of those who have entered history: “Once a famous person is dead, he’s of no use to me.”

But if history is bunk, mere living in the present won’t do either. Benny’s is a conservative piety, impatient with the new and voguish, devoted to the celebrities whose continued if remote existence assures him that he too has resisted time’s erosions:

It’s Mary Martin—my world record for second acts. I snuck in twelve times to watch her in I Do, I Do…. Just seeing her—one of the great, all-time money makers of the Broadway stage—makes you happy. It’s like thinking nice things before going to sleep, only you’re awake. She’s always sunny…. Miss Martin’s a star from the old school—well dressed, neat, proper, perky. That’s not the style these days. Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Vanessa Redgrave—they’re all kinky. They wear sandals and swear. They get political and pregnant. Of course, they’re still famous and fun to watch, but there’s something about the old-timers. They don’t pretend they don’t give a darn. They don’t slouch. All their colors match. What’s the sense of hiding you’re a star like Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford or Steve McQueen when you are one?

What Benny misses in modern show-biz is, I suppose, what other citizens miss in modern politics, and what reassures them about the unslouching, color-matching Nixons. You should see them. Then they should disappear.

Of course, Benny Walsh is mad, unable to function with any success outside his avocation, and Lahr, in an unfortunate melodramatic ending, makes him kill the maitre d‘ whose different rage for order has frustrated his own. That Benny should have to pay for his mania is somehow shocking, for he isn’t important or aware enough to be tragic. The book never quite decides whether to be a heavy Guys and Dolls or a soft Midnight Cowboy, but if Lahr doesn’t know what to do with Benny Walsh, he gets him marvelously, and this funny and touching book has a small but pure clarity about the way people live.

André Schwarz-Bart has found in the history of eighteenth-century Guade-loupe a few records of an otherwise forgotten life, and he has undertaken in this novel to rescue it for moral contemplation. The result seems to me both very beautiful and, though blamelessly so, false to some of its best intentions. The woman called Solitude was born in Guadeloupe around 1772, to a newly transported Diola slave who had been impregnated by a white sailor before her arrival. Slavery denies the child even a name of her own—first called Rosalie in accordance with her plantation’s efficient bookkeeping system, by which a new-born slave took the name of a recently dead one, she adopted the name Solitude during her wanderings through the island’s black insurrection against Republican and Bonapartist efforts to restore white mastery after the emancipation of 1795. A strange, inarticulate, melancholy figure who seems only a bewildered zombie, she rises to heroic violence against the oppressors before her capture and execution in 1802.

Schwarz-Bart brings skill and tact to this data. He begins the story in West Africa, with the growth of Solitude’s mother into spirited young woman-hood within the rhythms of tribal custom, a culture founded on earth and water, rice-growing and shell-fishing, “in a calm and intricate estuary landscape, where the clear water of a river, the green water of an ocean, and the black water of a delta channel mingled.” This good world has its measure of malice, lust, and violence, and Schwarz-Bart doesn’t patronize it; but the intrusion of slavers into its wisdom and security comes as a shocking violation of both bodily freedom and stability of mind.

Mental violation is in fact the book’s main theme. In the New World, Solitude is largely treated decently, even humanely, by a succession of owners, from the manager of her original plantation to the curious Rousseauist Chevalier de Dangeau, whose slave ship is called La Nouvelle Héloïse and who brings his more prepossessing chattels into the parlor for musicales and philosophical conversations. For the African-born, “saltwater” blacks, the horror is the loss of their homeland; for “freshwaters” like Solitude, born in captivity, not knowing exactly what it is that has been lost, denied the memory of Africa that gives the others a basis for religious or revolutionary resistance, the horror is both muted and more destructive. Not knowing what they are, some become mercenaries in the white man’s system; others, like Solitude, blunder into a negritude they need but can’t quite understand or trust.

Solitude’s tragedy is interior. As a child she yearns for the rebellious mother who ran away to join the wild slaves in the hills. As a métisse she is suspected or scorned by the pure blacks; her eyes are of different colors, earning her the nickname “Two-Souls”; she has a recurrent nightmare of being a yellow dog; her childhood stammer and the strange vacancy that settles on her with puberty conceal fantasies of vengeful wickedness that might win her people’s favor. As she moves through a world of political and moral tragedy, she becomes, in her incomprehension and heroic impulses, a movingly representative figure of our guilty historical imagination.

Here my difficulties begin. A Woman Named Solitude is a beautiful book, told in a dreamlike flow of images that is well served by Ralph Manheim’s sober, underplayed English translation. But that beauty is “European” and “literary,” a medium in which concern and compassion seem to confess their helplessness to penetrate and merge with an alien consciousness. Here is Solitude on the way to her execution:

Unaccustomed to the daylight, she marveled at the red sun, so bright and gay, that was rising over the last moments of her life. The horses and uniforms sparkled in its light, and the yellow house fronts, the balconies, and sidewalks were swarming with people who had come to see her die. The things of this world were shrouded in a luminous veil, as fragile and beautiful as the reflections in the waters of the Goyave, and even the living bodies seemed clothed in this soft, silken transparency. Perhaps they too were reflections, parcels of the shimmering light that plunges into the Goyave…. Then these visions vanished, and a street opened out on the port, revealing sugar warehouses, gum trees, small boats, and in the distance large sailing vessels jutting into the blue sky. Merry-go-rounds and swings had been set up all along the waterfront. In arbors off to one side meringues, manioc cakes, and hot chicken pies were for sale. The holiday atmosphere was like the great days of the Republic, when the blacks went to the Place de la Victoire to watch the guillotine and see the knife fall. It was like…just like…she said to herself in confusion, and for a brief moment a shadow of a smile crossed her ravaged lips.

The prose here has been earned by the rest of the novel—we’re referred back to her crossing of the Goyave River, the moment of her acceptance by the rebel blacks marked by her healing immersion in cool waters, and farther back stands the lost world of her mother’s youth, the river culture of the Diolas which she can never know more directly than this. But the symbols and ironies of the carnival atmosphere are hard to locate in Solitude’s mind; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité have indeed led back to the old mix of unreflecting cruelty and confused compassion, but it is the novelist’s tragic recognition, not the heroine’s, that generates that “shadow of a smile.” A “Western” way of seeing things—“reflections,” “visions,” the old appearance-reality game—is imposed, for lack of anything better, on an awareness that must surely have had its own, quite different terms.

Schwarz-Bart, I feel, gets as close as a white writer probably can to an experience from which his own culture excludes him, but I suspect that a black writer would have wanted to do it differently. (Whether he could, so long after the white man laid his “thought-eggs” in black minds, as one of the Guadeloupe rebels puts it, is a painful question.) Certainly the Epilogue, in which a modern traveler visits the heights of Matouba, where the black insurrection ended in suicidal holocaust, reveals the terrible difficulty:

If he is in the mood to salute, a memory, his imagination will people the environing space, and human figures will rise up around him, just as the phantoms that wander about the humiliated ruins of the Warsaw ghetto are said to rise up before the eyes of other travelers.

These are the book’s last words, the only ones that suggest a modern outlook. I don’t know how Schwarz-Bart could pay tribute to the black experience of white history more honorably than by associating it with a horror closer to home. But the association seems partly false and sentimental nevertheless, a sign of unavoidable imaginative frustration. To equate Solitude and her people with the martyrs of Warsaw involves a degree of generalizing that, in the name of an impartial “humanity” of feeling, may misrepresent both cases.

No admirer of Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just will be surprised to hear that A Woman Named Solitude is the work of a conscientious and gifted writer and, more important, a good man, and it will benefit us all to read it. But it shows, I think, that the greatest tragedy of the history it tries to recover is that none of us will ever quite know what it was like.

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