Jerzy by Jerome Charyn
Jerzy: A Novel
Author: Jerome Charyn
Jerzy: A Novel is the story of post-WWII figure Jerzy Kosinski, whose life was a blend of fact and fiction for decades. Author Jerome Charyn highlights Kosinski’s career in post-WWII America through this complicated, nuanced novel, slowly peeling layers off the titular character and revealing he is not who he first appears to be.
Jerzy is the story of Kosinski’s life told from different points of view, a blend of fact and fiction itself. In one section, movie star Peter Sellers sends “Little Ian” on his behalf to secure a starring role in Being There, an adaptation of one of Kosinski’s novels. In another, Stalin’s daughter Lana escapes to the United States and shares a friendship with Jerzy. Martha, Jerzy’s wife, notices when Jerzy’s stories are not consistent, leading to a final section in which Jerzy’s “true” childhood is speculated.
Much like Kosinski himself, Charyn takes historical figures and creates their narration. Their narrations differ, depending on how well they know Jerzy. Lana’s narration, for example, recounts her strange friendship with the man who plays dress-up and takes her to lavish dinners. However, Lana sees a dark side to this, explaining, “I did not have a choice. I had to cut off the heart of my own addiction, or I would have ended up in a madhouse.” She compares Jerzy to a drug addiction; none of her admirers go to the lengths he does to vie for her attention.
Martha has a closer relationship with Jerzy as his wife. Before and during their marriage, Jerzy maintains an accent that pronounces ‘r’ heavily, which goes along with his habit of dressing as European military officers. Jerzy also carries a cardboard case, which he claims Gavrila, a heroic SS officer, gave to him. She begins to doubt all his tales, and seems to be the only one. Notable in Martha’s narration is when Jerzy tries to convince her that he had had sex with his own mother. Later, Jerzy will not confirm or deny his own claim. Martha catches onto this, asking, “Jurek, how do you ever fall asleep at night? You must stumble over your own stories.” Jerzy’s contradictions soon become more readily apparent, and his stories begin to lose sense. As the novel progresses, Jerzy’s elaborate tales become too big and mangled to manage.
The final narration is an omnipresent section speculating Jerzy’s true childhood, which contradicts the story of abandonment for which he became famous. He is not heroic, but a boy frustrated with his hostile village. His Jewish family pretends to be Catholic while hiding from Nazis. “Secret service” was a game that his father played with him. Gavrila – the SS officer he claimed gave him the cardboard the case – arrives and is admired by Jerzy, but the troop soon moves on. Jerzy tries to run away with them, but is caught and taken back to his family. He never became a true “wild boy,” but one that is trapped.
With no official accounts of Jerzy’s life before he came to America, others must believe his stories – both in the book and in real life. Jerzy does show some self-awareness about what he is doing. He tells Lana: “I lie even when I speak the truth.” The novel implies that Jerzy has become a pathological liar; he has started something he cannot stop. Martha catches this the most, and he becomes more controlling as he slips on his own lies.
The downward spiral for Jerzy is a constant thread in all their accounts. He arrives on the scene a wonderful, exiting man, but soon people notice his flaws and find danger in being around him. Lana and Anya break their friendship with Jerzy off, while Martha divorces him, lapses in her alcoholism, and must return to rehab. Each character has their time with Jerzy, and learns to leave him behind before they are used up and discarded by him in turn. He ultimately dies by suicide in 1991.
This is an enjoyable book for those who like puzzles, as the reader must pay attention to piece together Jerzy’s own story, true or not. Charyn’s skill with each narrator is clear as he weaves a tale as complicated as the larger-than-life Jerzy Kosinski.
Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Amanda Murphy.
Amanda Murphy is a soon-to-be graduate with a BA in English at Binghamton University. She is an intern for SFWP for the fall. She also helps edit her campus’ undergraduate literary magazine. In her free time, Amanda enjoys knitting and listening to symphonic metal.