The Hermit of 69th Street

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Mark Twain’s comment, one of many quotations which Jerzy Kosinski weaves into his narrative, is good advice for the unwary reader of this novel. It is a work of “autofiction,” neither truth nor lies. If it is “about” anything (“You must never ask the serious novelist what his novel is all about” a quotation in the text warns), it is the fine line between reality and imagination, truth and fiction, in the process of literary creation.

The protagonist, Norbert Kosky, is a Jewish writer in his fifties who originally came from the mythical European country of Ruthenia, where he survived the Holocaust, but who now lives in the United States. Kosky has a cabalistic attachment to letters and numbers; he is obsessed by the letters SS, which represent anything from “spiritually sacred” to “safe sex” (apart from their Nazi implications), and by the number 69. Both run like a leitmotif through the text. The narrative consists of a series of bizarre episodes. One of the most amusing is when Kosky is selected to award the Oscars; one of the most powerful is when he plays the part of the Russian revolutionary leader Nikolay Bukharin in a motion picture (which draws on Kosinski’s own appearance as Grigory Zinoviev in the film REDS). Many episodes involve voluptuous young women who promise, and sometimes give, sex. Like the Holocaust, sex is never far away in this book. Kosky views it through Tantric spectacles; he has ambitions to be a kind of sexual yogi.

Many readers may find this long book, full of wordplay and intellectual gymnastics, difficult to get through. The quotations which continually interrupt the narrative are more irritating than illuminating, as are the distracting footnotes.