(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator is a young man who travels from place to place experiencing life in its rawest form. In a small village, he shows his credit cards to a young orphaned woman who washes and mends his clothes and tells her that she will never need money again if she comes with him. She follows him to the city to find a better life for herself and trades sex with him for money. The situation is reversed when he finds himself in a strange city without money and has to trade sex for food.

As a ski instructor in an area close to a tuberculosis sanatorium, he makes love to a woman patient through mirrors; the two never touch. An encounter with a woman at a zoo leads to the narrator’s picking up another woman, who turns out to be a male transvestite. A waiter at a train-station restaurant arranges for the narrator to attend a show where a woman and a large unidentified animal copulate while observers place bets as to the depth of penetration.

A grouping of anecdotes about the army includes stories in which two civilians are killed by a sniper, a group of soccer players disappear when they drive across an artillery practice field, and soldiers play a macho gambling game for entertainment. Punishment for a man who cheats in the game is to have his genitals crushed to a pulp between rocks.

The narrator remembers events that occurred during World War II but were not army experiences. As a boy, he was boarded out with farmers who mistreated him. He got revenge by enticing their children to swallow concealed fishhooks and broken glass, which killed them. A cemetery caretaker he knew had been a boxer before being put into a Nazi concentration camp; his captors let him survive so that he could entertain them by fighting with professionals, but the rules were such that no one wanted to fight against him.

When the narrator was a student at the university, he heard about a scientist who at a Communist Party reception pinned gold condoms on every guest instead of medals. At one time the narrator was banished to an agricultural...

(The entire section is 840 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kosinski’s second novel, Steps, consists of forty-eight short vignettes narrated by an unnamed young man who moves back and forth between two worlds, Communist Eastern Europe and the West. The first is a claustrophobic environment of peasant villages, compulsory military service, political intrigue at a university, and the endless criticism and surveillance of Communist Party organizations such as the kind he described in The Future Is Ours, Comrade. The second, the West, especially America, is an equally treacherous environment where the narrator begins as a victim—like the young Kosinski—because he can hardly speak the language. Eventually, the narrator transforms himself from victim to oppressor. He drives fast cars, learns how to use complex eavesdropping devices, and flashes a wallet full of credit cards.

Steps, then, is the narrator’s account, in a voice that is detached, cool, and seemingly impervious to moral insight, of two related transformations of himself from the status of a character plotted against to that of a writer who does the plotting. In both East and West, the narrator begins as an outsider, speaking the language of victimization. In both, he masters the language of his oppressor and then proceeds to work his will on his enemies, first by escaping from the East, second by acquiring the possessions needed in the West to remain independent—income, credit, mobility.

Language and sex in Steps can be either sources of power or signs of weakness, depending on how the relationship between speaker and hearer, or between sexual partners, establishes itself. The narrator sees both language and sex in terms of the interaction of will. Each activity involves...

(The entire section is 710 words.)