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Horse Play

Passion Play by Jerzy Kosinski St. Martin's Press, $10.95.

By David Frankel

SANDWICHED BETWEEN three paragraphs about a five year old boy who teaches fear-of-flying and sex therapy sessions and an interview with a paper-trained puppy that writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald (In His Own Words), People magazine tells us where Jerzy Kosinski hangs out: dingy streets, sex clubs, hospital operating rooms, and polo fields. I thought once that Jerzy Kosinski had the most fantastic and bizarre imagination of any American writer. Lurid episodes splatter his pages, rapes of village nymphs by jealous peasant women with rake handles and broken bottles and remote-control murders on Swiss ski slopes. Yet if People can be trusted, Kosinski's tales are more life than art, drawing on a misguided, exotic youth.

Like the little boy of The Painted Bird, Kosinski wandered the villages of Eastern Europe alone while World War II ravaged the continent. Like the idiot of Being There, Kosinski abandoned Europe for the United States, arriving there stupid and mute. And like the heroes of his later novels, he married a fabulously wealthy widow who died six years later leaving him nothing.

Now Kosinski idles away his non-writing time indulging in the extravagance of the ultra-rich; the result is Passion Play. Kosinski writes of possessed and spirited men jousting with civilized culture--Don Quixotes turned competent. Introduced as the world's pre-eminent polo player, Fabian, Passion Play's knight errant, is first found scrounging around New York City for a practice field. His dominant talent and penchant for revenge have driven him from the plush meadows of polo estates. Playing one on one matches with wealthy opponents, writing books about the dangers of horse-back riding, living on a retainer at the beck of rich polo patrons, Fabian has actually earned a living at polo. But he never settles down, he's always after the best polo game, as well as the best of his other two passions--sleep and sex.

Most of Fabian's sex occurs inside his VanHome, a monstrous mobile house of a half-dozen rooms, among them a tack room, skylit bedroom, and stable for his horses. The VanHome and the strange sex that goes on inside it leap out as symbols of the way of life Kosinski's characters have always sought. The impregnable quality of the VanHome, its mobility and completeness, match the character of its driver. Like the sex in his bedroom, Fabian burns wildly passionate on the inside. But like the cool metal walls of the VanHome, his shell is unforgiving.

Passion Play chronicles the spectacular incidents frantically about chronological time: the swing of a polo mallet revives the memory--the images, glints and scents--of the same action many years before.

The unceasing herky-jerk action of Passion Play hints at Kosinski's attempt to harness to the novel the devices of another medium--television. This is the foremost example of the easy-to-follow, one-character plot ridden with sex and violence. The novel as a popular art form may soon smother in the voluminous fluff of television and cinema. Kosinski senses this and innovatively adopts many of the devices, the timing and pace, of TV and cinema--hence the accessibility of his novels. What's remarkable is that he manages this without in any way compromising his literary integrity.

Passion Play, however, can not claim an untarnished victory. Love never surfaces in this, or for that matter, any other Kosinski novel. Instead he confronts us with heroes like Fabian--men who want only to possess females; searing orgasm and the fulfillment of sexual fantasy develop as the closest bonds between humans.

The depravity of this attitude can't be dismissed as male chauvinism, however. Rather, it reflects Kosinski's commentary on the modern trend of individualism. We tend increasingly to draw away from others, to turn our backs on the world, on the country, on friends, and on family; ultimately, we will consider only ourselves.

Fabian will one day die, alone, and this fact torments him. He sees middle age in every mirror. When his body does fail him, his passionate courtship of polo will end. Without the opportunity to excel, without the ability to mount a pony and fly victorious across a manicured field, without all this Fabian's life need not continue. Hence, the books Fabian has written (he too is an author) warn of the dangers of horsemanship--there's no blithe extolling of the joys of riding here. Indeed, Kosinski--Fabian's creator--himself carries poison with him at all times so he can abruptly kill himself should he suffer such a crippling accident.

Passion Play is Kosinski's seventh novel and we see more method to the madness of human grotesquerie that has always decorated his pages. Kosinski writes about the dark shadow self--our violent urges, homosexual lusts, transexual curiosities, murderous inclinations, heterosexual explorations, and, inevitably, our intense fear of surrendering control of the flesh and bones that give us life. None of these themes is new to Kosinski; what's new is the lucidity and restraint with which they're developed. Passion Play is his best novel yet.

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