(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

For many readers, the story of Jerzy Kosinski has all the ingredients of a classic tragedy, and James Park Sloan’s Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography will not disappoint them. Here was a young Jewish immigrant from Poland who could speak very little English when he escaped to America from behind the Iron Curtain in 1957. In a few years, however, his best-selling account of his survival of the Holocaust came out in perfect English; he married an American heiress and published first-rate fiction in his new language.

Then, suddenly, fate struck him down in the person of two hostile New York journalists who claimed others had written his works. Many of Kosinski’s readers deserted him, and his last novel was a colossal failure. Finally, his suicide, on May 2, 1991, was executed with the stoic precision of one of his literary protagonists. Without disturbing his wife, who slept in their bed next door, Kosinski took an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. Lying down in his bathtub, he put a plastic bag over his head to make sure he would suffocate while drowsing toward death.

Jerzy Kosinski treats its fascinating subject in an inquisitive, informed, and finally sympathetic manner. Sloan does not downplay Kosinski’s tendency to embellish his life’s story and to shock his audience. After all, it was exactly this shock value that propelled his first novel, The Painted Bird(1965), to the international best-sellers lists.

Marketed as thinly veiled autobiography, The Painted Bird’s harrowing tale of a young Jewish or Gypsy boy’s six-year odyssey through the horrors of Nazi-occupied Poland stunned its readers. People were shocked by episodes describing the boy’s first sexual encounters, the acts of cruelty he suffers at the hands of Polish peasants, and his ultimate acts of revenge such as the derailment of a passenger train.

When doubts emerged about the veracity of the book’s autobiographical elements and it became clear to most people that Kosinski’s book was a special form of fiction, quite a few of his readers and critics were shocked again, although for a different reason. Now, as Sloan shows, they felt bewildered and betrayed by an author whom they soon came to consider the ultimate literary trickster.

According to James Sloan, however, the roots for Kosinski’s lifelong desire to surprise and startle, to trick other people, lay deep in his past. Sloan clearly forgives Kosinski for the sake of the real ordeals he lived through in his youth. As Jews living in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Kosinski family had to survive by deceiving their Nazi enemies about their real identity. Jerzy Kosinski documents how Moses Lewinkopf wisely changed his Jewish last name to the Polish “Kosinski” in the spring of 1941, and how his eight-year-old son Jerzy lived up to his father’s plans for survival.

Thus, Sloan is not surprised by the likely discrepancies between Kosinski’s actual youth and that of the boy in The Painted Bird. In the crucial case of the boy’s separation from his parents, Sloan’s research reveals how neighbors and relatives remember that, unlike his protagonist, Kosinski was never separated from his family.

When the Nazi horror ended, the Kosinskis eventually settled back in the Polish city of Lodz. Here, Sloan’s research shows how hard the biographer had to work to establish a historically accurate picture of Jerzy Kosinski’s young life. Pursuing photography and women while studying social sciences, for example, Kosinski would later claim to have studied seriously in Moscow; yet while he did independent research in the city, there are no surviving records of his ever having been an enrolled student there. Thus, since Kosinski proved himself so notoriously unreliable about the events of his life, most of Sloan’s findings are based on interviews with people who have known Kosinski or on secondary materials, such as official documents and the printed recollections of others who had contact with Kosinski.

This method succeeds well in giving the reader a good sense not only of the facts of Kosinski’s life but also of the ways in which his mind creatively embellished and altered factual episodes. While his actual departure for the United States...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)