By Jerzy Kosinski
New York: Seaver Books, Henry Holt and Company, 1981
ISBN # 0-8050-0861-6
206 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2012

The structure of the book isn’t really like a traditional novel. It is a blend of sort of a weak, curious, but somewhat interesting story of Jonathan Whalen’s bizarre life and then tiny vignettes of what he remembers of his unusual experiences and thoughts about the world. It often read like a journal.

We follow the story of the main character, the young Jonathan Whalen, who has inherited the National Midland Bank and is phenomenally rich.

He wonders who he really is:

“. . . I’ve gained all my wealth and power without risking my life in a war or a revolutions, without bravery or cowardice, betrayal, suffering or sacrifice. Thus as a dramatic hero I have no roots in Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or Stendhal . . . Am I merely an example of the banality of power and wealth in America?”

The book (“novel” just doesn’t quite sound right) is a fascinating read, yet it was hard for me to relate to a character who is so wealthy that most of his wants or dreams can be satisfied in a moment. I had to constantly do a reflective comparison which suggested to me that my own choice of a very simple material and economic life, and my delights in the simple life, has given me a degree of freedom that all of Jonathan’s wealth couldn’t provide for him.

In many ways the novel read like two separate books. One, a more traditional novel, seems relatively thin, the story of an extraordinarily wealth young man with a sad and bizarre past, and with exotic sexual tastes. The other part is more like either journal entries of events or reflections of a person with a quite unusual thoughts, but fascinating and interesting. Odd though the book is, I enjoyed it a great deal.

Before the book begins he’s already disintoxicated from drugs, and has no interest in them any longer. However, Karen, his long-time girlfriend, a very beautiful and famous model (with quite huge and varied sexual tastes) does use drugs often and despite his constant reminder that he no longer uses them, she constantly offers and suggests them.

In one place Jonathan tells us:

“Once when I was considering going through psycho-therapy, Karen warned me that it is a bit like the treatment for a broken shinbone that has mended crookedly; to correct it, breaking the bone again is often necessary. But, unlike bone surgery, psychotherapy offers no anesthesia, no clearly defined period of healing, no assurance that things will ever mend, and for a while your new walk might seem like a limp to you and those who know you.”

Another of his reflections which caught my interest and attention was within a conversation with his father’s former valet:

“Anthony remarked that I was lucky to have so much freedom – meaning money. When I tried to tell him that money could not buy the inner freedom that I have always desired he wasn’t convinced."

I think both are correct. Anthony’s view is a precondition. Jonathan is right in that money alone can’t guarantee it.

He wrestles with whether or not to work. However, “work” as he sees it is to work for money or profit. As I see it I work as much now in retirement as I did when I was paid to work, and I take my “work” quite seriously – writing comments like these on books, working on family history and the history of my neighborhood and such things. On the other hand, my “paid work” of teaching philosophy was such a delight to me the 36 years I did it that is just never seemed like “work” in the sense of something one has to do and may not always want to do it. I just loved it all the time.

However, Jonathan confesses that he was never very thoughtful about his ways:

“Unlike my natural drives for sex, sleep and food, my depression arises from my failure to arm myself morally, spiritually, and philosophically against such doubt and despair.”

Another of the passages which drew me to a stopping point to think about it was in relation to John Calvin and democracy:

“Whalen said once that if he was fond of the American Constitution and its plea for the distribution of power, it was not because he believed that all men equally deserved to exercise power, but because the Constitution properly bore out John Calvin’s famous notion of man’s natural corruption, as expressed in his Institutes: that ‘the vice or imperfection of men therefore renders it safer and more tolerable for the government to be in the hand of many . . . and that if any one arrogate to himself more than is right, the many may act as censors and masters to restrain his ambition . . . ‘”

The novel is filled with bits and pieces that grabbed me and made me stop reading and think about them for a while. But the thin tale of Jonathan’s life just didn’t excite me much. Nonetheless, I would recommend the novel and a worthwhile read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett