”The native calls the baobab ‘the devil tree’ because he claims that the devil, getting tangled in its branches, punished the tree by reversing it. To the native, the roots are branches now, and the branches are roots. To ensure that there would be no more baobabs, the devil destroyed all the young ones. That’s why, the native says, there are only full-grown baobab trees left.”
Jonathan James Whalen is caught up in the roots of his life. The ghosts of his parents, the snares of his wealth, the pursuit to feel something through drugs, sex, and therapy, and absolutely no idea of what to do with his life are all keeping him trapped in the same place regardless of where he is geographically. He travels around Africa, finds himself in exotic brothels, and moves from woman to woman looking for some kind of fulfillment from the world around him. The issue of course is the same for anyone: regardless of where you are, you are still you.
If this book were set in the 1980’s, Jonathan might have appeared in the novel Less Than Zero. He could have hung out with Clay and Blair and their circle of rich, uninspired, fairly useless individuals with no individuality, and blended in quite well. Waking up with a pair of tan legs slung across his stomach, his head aching from too much alcohol and too little information, and his nose dripping blood into his mouth would be a very familiar set of circumstances for Jonathan.
Of course, this is the early seventies, not the coke fueled eighties, so his drug of choice is something with a little longer history of providing escape for the shattered and the bored.”You smoke it yourself, lay it on your woman, and will she make love! Meanwhile, you lie still, your eyes shut, that sucks all your juices. With every smoke you see waterfalls turn into ice, ice into stone and stone into sound. Sound turns into color, and color becomes white, and white becomes water.”
It is a mind expanding experience if you have a mind that can expand. Jonathan is missing some of those emotional triggers, those memories that make the next moment more meaningful, and the ability to react properly to the various stimuli that he continues to chase. He wants to feel…anything.
Karen is his on again off again girlfriend, the Blair of this story. She is as messed up as he is, but though she is insightful to his afflictions, she is oblivious to her own. ”She says I am passionless and self-contained, that I have limited emotions with no extremes of anger, happiness or sorrow, I lost them somewhere abroad, she says, as if I had them before I left.”
”You’re hiding something.” She smiled. “You’re hiding a dead body. Your own.”
Jonathan has an actress friend who is complaining about the expectations that producers/directors have for an actress who wishes to act. The casting couch has been around long before Hollywood, and I’m sure it is still one of the crasser points of negotiation today. ”’We’ll pay you five hundred and fifty dollars a week to blow us and on the side you can be star!’ That wouldn’t be as bad. Women should have double cunts: one for business and one for pleasure. At least in this city they should.”I could see how bartering sex for a chance at a job could lead a woman to think that making love with someone she cares about is just one more negotiation.
For all his questing Jonathan doesn’t ever find what he is looking for, partly because he is unwilling or unable to search within himself. At the end of the book he is gazing out at the river, great view, from a “rest home.” He has all that money and none of the imagination to find a way to make himself happy.
Jerzy Kosinski wrote an expanded version of this book a decade or so after the 1973 edition. The writing is pared down, leaching out, in my opinion, too much meaning. There are many lost opportunities for thoughts and concepts to acquire more significance. I do wonder if he realized this which is what prompted the revision. The intent of course is to have the writing reflect the lack of feelings of Jonathan Whalen. For me it was too barren, too peeled, too edited. I would recommend reading the new version to those who are thinking about reading this book. Kosinski came under criticism with charges of plagiarism for his critically acclaimed novel Being There. He was in Ill health and tired of dealing with the claims against his integrity. He made the decision to kill himself in 1991. He left a simple note. "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity." For a writer he was very succinct.
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