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Because his persona was so strange and illusive, understanding Jerzy Kozinski was challenging for his biographer, James Park Sloan. In the final analysis, Sloan speculated that Kozinski suffered from alexithymia, a regression of feeling that makes the affects useless in the processing of information. An alternative approach to the Kozinski story might be to imagine him in a work of historical fiction. This is what Jerome Charyn does in JERZY. In an interview, Charyn described Kozinski as “a shadow within a shadow within a shadow.” He never mastered the English language, a fact that lead to his eventual downfall because of his extensive use of “editors.” What he did master, however, was something he learned in Nazi-occupied Poland—the art of lying and dissembling. Charyn captures this quality admirably in his novel, but also portrays Kozinski as a gifted storyteller. Ultimately Kozinski used stories to once again survive. Only this time, it was not the Nazis, but a language and culture where he was never completely comfortable. Charyn uses multiple narrators, some based on real people and others imagined, to tell Jerzy’s story. His approach is to start at the end and work backward through his colorful life to the time when Kozinski’s strange persona may have formed. He begins in the period of Kozinski’s peak fame, when he derived much satisfaction from social climbing and hobnobbing with celebrities, including Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden. Ian worked for Peter Sellers at the time and relates the story of Sellers’ intense interest in portraying Chauncey Gardner in a movie version of “Being There.” Kozinski loved playing hard to get with Sellers, but eventually relented. Because Sellers comes across as just about a weird as Kozinski, this part of the novel is quite amusing. One of the more humorous anecdotes in this section tells of a meeting between Sellers and Stan Laurel, who is now living in a retirement home and missing his longtime partner, Oliver Hardy. Sellers manages to convince Stan that he is Hardy with delightful results. Svetlana Alliluyeva was briefly Jerzy’s neighbor on the faculty at Princeton. Jersy admired Stalin and was completely taken with Svetlana. As the novel progresses backward, Charyn introduces Kozinski’s alcoholic ex-wife. As a consummate social climber, Jerzy saw the obvious advantages in being married to the heir to the petroleum jelly fortune. However, he demonstrates little real affection for or loyalty to this bizarre woman. Next up is Anna Karenina, a dominatrix who Kozinski meets while patronizing her sex club. Caryn uses this relationship to introduce his problems with eclectic storytelling encumbered by awkward writing in English. Anna provides Jerzy with an extremely talented and sexy young editor who manages to re-write his prose using Stalin’s much loved green pencil.The most revealing chapter deals with Jerzy’s early life in Poland. He often told the story, related in “The Painted Bird”, of abandonment by his parents during the war and being left to wander the countryside. Charyn sets that record straight by depicting Jerzy, surviving as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland, not by abandonment, but by dissembling. His father managed to hide him and his family right under the noses of the Germans by masquerading as Catholics. The narrative deftly travels backward by carefully pealing away the layers of Kozinski’s bizarre life, much like an archeologist would, to reveal a few shards of truth. We discover a traumatized boy who learned to survive and even succeed by his wits and imagination. Charyn approaches his subject with a clear eye. At the height of his career, Kozinski did enjoy many successes. He was a major literary figure, winning prestigious awards. He made the acquaintance of famous and powerful people and was a darling of the talk show circuit. Charyn also gives us a ruthless social climber, sexual libertine, pathological liar and strange exhibitionist. On balance, he returns to where he started. “There is no meaning. He was a shadow within a shadow within a shadow.”

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