Sport appears in the work of American writers of serious fiction with rather surprising frequency, but it tends to be sport of a solitary, noncompetitive nature. Hunting, for example, is often to be found in William Faulkner's writings, notably the superb short story The Bear. Ernest Hemingway, himself an accomplished fisherman, told one of our most famous fish stories in The Old Man and the Sea. There is a lot of cross-country jogging and walking in Bernard Malamud's recent novel, Dubin's Lives.
But good fiction that discusses competitive sport, team games in particular, remains a relative rarity. Among writers of literary reputation, Robert Coover, Philip Roth and Malamud have written about baseball. Don DeLillo and James Whitehead are the authors of novels with football settings. John Updike writes occasionally about basketball, most notably in his Rabbit Run and its sequel, Rabbit Redux.
That's about it. So it comes as quite a surprise to find Jerzy Kosinski, a novelist of enviable reputation who has previously evinced no inclination for sporting themes, writing with knowledge and intensity about polo in his new novel, Passion Play (St. Martin's, $11.95). It is the story of a man known only as Fabian, a "knight errant" who roams the country in a huge van, playing polo matches for high stakes. The game is his life.
"Fabian had once heard, perhaps at one of those fire-and-brimstone revival meetings he sometimes came upon in his travels, that if God wished truly to lay a man low, he would take from him the sacred flame. Fabian knew that his only fire was polo, his only art the power, mounted and in motion, to strike a moving ball, his only craft the guile to place that ball where he would within the field, undaunted by the presence of other players—he astride the horse at full gallop, his polo stick a lance at the ready, his brain compressing present, past, future in a single act, matchless, without flaw. Within the compass of this briefest, most incandescent of life's occasions, he was possessed by bliss, surprised by joy, a pioneer beyond the realm of known condition and circumstance, a god in a perfect moment of existence."
In a way Passion Play is a logical extension of Kosinski's previous work. In his six other novels, the protagonist usually has been a man to whom life itself is a game, a man who plays that game with chilly dispassion and a sometimes cruel disregard for the fate of others. In Cockpit and Blind Date, for example, the protagonists see themselves as avenging angels, dispatching with icy swiftness those whom they regard as malefactors, but they are no more capable of lasting human relationships than are the villains whom they eliminate.
At first glance, Fabian seems to be cut from the same cloth. "I don't deliberately hurt people," he says. "I like them. I play with them." He is "a man of undistinguished looks and without obvious charm, with no riches to seduce, no particular skill to enthrall, and no profession that enhanced—above all, a man outside of permanence, able to offer only a few hours, days, weeks of his presence."
That is especially true regarding women. Fabian prowls through the pages of a magazine called The Saddle Bride, looking for pictures of young women with exceptional equestrian abilities. He then makes his way to their towns, establishes himself as their teacher and eventually seduces them. He feels affection for them, but ultimately his motto is seduce and abandon.
Until, that is, he encounters Vanessa Stanhope, the child of a famous equestrian family who possesses a flawed but magical beauty. His connection to her family is complicated because, in a one-on-one polo match, he killed—accidentally, but with murderous motives—one of its most prominent members. Into the bargain, he is more than twice her age.
They fall in love anyway, and the novel moves steadily toward his unavoidable choice between attachment and flight. Fabian's obsession with polo gives way to his obsession with Vanessa. This is perfectly understandable, but it throws the novel off balance; because polo is so central to Passion Play's first half, its near-disappearance in the second half is puzzling. One can't help wondering how deep Fabian's attachment really is to his "sacred flame."
Still, Kosinski is always a provocative writer—and to my mind an entertaining one as well—and Passion Play will please his many admirers. As usual, his prose is clipped and vivid, which is all the more remarkable because, as not all readers may know, he grew up in Poland and did not learn English until he was in his 20s. He is a fine descriptive writer who can create and sustain moments of genuine drama; the match in which the Stanhope heir is killed is splendid, as is one against a haughty Latin American aristocrat.
Of Fabian, Kosinski writes, "The essence of competition, for him, lay not in the challenge offered by others but always in the challenge posed by himself." That is true of Kosinski, too. As man and as writer he goes his own way, indifferent to literary fashion, creating a body of work that has as one of its central themes the struggle for survival in a difficult, often hostile world. In Passion Play he uses the world of sport to continue that inquiry, and to impressive effect.