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The Devil Tree by Jerzy Kosiński
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The Devil Tree (1973)

by Jerzy Kosiński

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“So this is insanity. How interesting. What happens next?”
― Jerzy Kosiński, The Devil Tree

Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Devil Tree takes place in 1970s America, a world of the Me generation, where an entire population had easy access to multiple partner sex, powerful mind-bending and sense-enhancing drugs and a plethora of self-help books ranging from jogging, diet, and speed-reading to primal screams, transactional analysis and do-it-yourself psychodrama. Being an adult and holding a philosophy of self-indulgence and pleasure, especially the pleasure of enjoyable sensations, is one thing, but, since as an adult, one is usually obliged to hold down a fairly routine job and attend to the round of family and everyday practical matters, one's hedonism must be tempered with a good measure of pragmatism and stoicism, which is to say, one has to learn to delay one's pleasure-seeking and bouts of self-absorption.

But what of those men and women who have enormous piles of money given to them, and thus freed from any need for job or work, and miles removed from taking on the responsibility of family and children? Well, meet the novel's main character, Jonathan James Whalen, one such man, a man in his 20s, with a huge family fortune but no family- no wife and children, no brother or sister, and, most dramatically as the result of two separate tragedies, no mother or father. Whalen is a family of one - himself. And being super-rich in the 1970s this mean Me with a capital "M", which, in turn, means Me and my desires and pleasures - many, many desires and oh-so-many pleasures.

Similar to Kosinski's autobiographical first novel, The Painted Bird, this work is nearly free of dialogue. And the story is not broken into chapters but rather told in short first person and third person vignettes revealing in spurts and bursts the character of Whalen and others around him, including Karen, his friend and lover he's known since childhood, as well as his departed parents -- emotionally distraught mother and famous entrepreneurial father . The vignettes seem to match the mind-set of the super-rich, especially Whalen: staccato, psychological, intensely preoccupied with self and with the unending search for satisfaction and a meaning in life through other people. Not a happy formula. And, predictably, Whalen and Karen experience more frustration and dissatisfaction than satisfaction and happiness.

And speaking of the psychological, Whalen belongs to that 1970s Me generation mass-phenomenon: the encounter group, which prompts his musing: "I don't like to think I'm as confused or simple-minded as others, but if I really am more complex, more experienced than they are, why should I want them to understand me?"

Here is a one of Whalen's reflections on his life and wealth: "When I was a child, I thought my possessions and properties belonged to me because I was pretty, as everyone continually assured me. Now I know I despise people who associate the way I look with my money and family connections, as though physical attractiveness is merely a matter of expensive shirts and custom-made suits. But even now it's hard for me to imagine being very wealthy and ugly at the same time: money and beauty are still my God-given rights."

How different are Whalen's reflection on money and beauty than most other Americans in the 1970s or any time, for that matter? Before devoting his complete creative energy to fiction, Kosinski studied and wrote in the social sciences. We can read this novel on a number of levels, including a work of keen sociological insight. The Devil Tree as a mirror on an entire society and culture. What do you see when you look in the mirror, America? Do you see any differently now that you are 40 years removed from the 1970s and the Me generation?

We follow Whalen going round and round and round for years in a high-speed, money-glutted, drug and liquor induced whirlwind, when finally he gains a measure of control of his emotions and can choose freely. But what a choice. Halfway through the novel we read: "My depressions are no longer such natural urges as sex, sleep and hunger. Now they are completely calculated. I could as easily have done something else yesterday afternoon, but I chose to enact a familiar ritual, to dull my mind and lose myself completely. I went to the liquor store and bought a fifth of Jack Daniel's. I went upstairs, poured myself a drink and put on a record. By six I had finished half the bottle and was thoroughly depressed, but comforted by the thought that I had selected my mood. I felt that at last I had total emotional control." So there we have it: freely choosing depression. What a statement on the super-rich lifestyle.

Toward the end of the novel, Whalen finally realizes he has been followed for quite some time, which leads to some real drama and propels him into real action fueled by the real emotion of revenge. Within this episode of revenge, Whalen relays the meaning of `the devil tree', a meaning involving the devil getting tangled in the tree's branches and turning the tree upside down. Considering his horrific childhood, Kosinski developed a sharp, penetrating observation of the plight of human entanglement when money is the tree. ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |

Jerzy Kosinski's novel 'The Devil Tree' takes place in 1970s America, a world of the Me generation, where an entire population had easy access to multiple partner sex, powerful mind-bending and sense-enhancing drugs and a plethora of self-help books ranging from jogging, diet, and speed-reading to primal screams, transactional analysis and do-it-yourself psychodrama. Being an adult and holding a philosophy of self-indulgence and pleasure, especially the pleasure of enjoyable sensations, is one thing, but, since as an adult, one is usually obliged to hold down a fairly routine job and attend to the round of family and everyday practical matters, one's hedonism must be tempered with a good measure of pragmatism and stoicism, which is to say, one has to learn to delay one's pleasure-seeking and bouts of self-absorption.

But what of those men and women who have enormous piles of money given to them, and thus freed from any need for job or work, and miles removed from taking on the responsibility of family and children? Well, meet the novel's main character, Jonathan James Whalen, one such man, a man in his 20s, with a huge family fortune but no family- no wife and children, no brother or sister, and, most dramatically as the result of two separate tragedies, no mother or father. Whalen is a family of one - himself. And being super-rich in the 1970s this mean Me with a capital `M", which, in turn, means Me and my desires and pleasures - many, many desires and oh-so-many pleasures.

Similar to Kosinski's autobiographical first novel, 'The Painted Bird', this work is nearly free of dialogue. And the story is not broken into chapters but rather told in short 1st person and 3rd person vignettes revealing in spurts and bursts the character of Whalen and others around him, including Karen, his friend and lover he's known since childhood, as well as his departed parents -- emotionally distraught mother and famous entrepreneurial father . The vignettes seem to match the mind-set of the super-rich, especially Whalen: staccato, psychological, intensely preoccupied with self and with the unending search for satisfaction and a meaning in life through other people. Not a happy formula. And, predictably, Whalen and Karen experience more frustration and dissatisfaction than satisfaction and happiness.

And speaking of the psychological, Whalen belongs to that 1970s Me generation mass-phenomenon: the encounter group, which prompts his musing: "I don't like to think I'm as confused or simple-minded as others, but if I really am more complex, more experienced than they are, why should I want them to understand me?"

Here is a one of Whalen's reflections on his life and wealth: "When I was a child, I thought my possessions and properties belonged to me because I was pretty, as everyone continually assured me. Now I know I despise people who associate the way I look with my money and family connections, as though physical attractiveness is merely a matter of expensive shirts and custom-made suits. But even now it's hard for me to imagine being very wealthy and ugly at the same time: money and beauty are still my God-given rights."

How different are Whalen's reflection on money and beauty than most other Americans in the 1970s or any time, for that matter? Before devoting his complete creative energy to fiction, Kosinski studied and wrote in the social sciences. We can read this novel on a number of levels, including a work of keen sociological insight. The Devil Tree as a mirror on an entire society and culture. What do you see when you look in the mirror, America? Do you see any differently now that you are 40 years removed from the 1970s and the Me generation?

We follow Whalen going round and round and round for years in a high-speed, money-glutted, drug and liquor induced whirlwind, when finally he gains a measure of control of his emotions and can choose freely. But what a choice. Halfway through the novel we read: "My depressions are no longer such natural urges as sex, sleep and hunger. Now they are completely calculated. I could as easily have done something else yesterday afternoon, but I chose to enact a familiar ritual, to dull my mind and lose myself completely. . . . I went to the liquor store and bought a fifth of Jack Daniel's. I went upstairs, poured myself a drink and put on a record. By six I had finished half the bottle and was thoroughly depressed, but comforted by the thought that I had selected my mood. I felt that at last I had total emotional control." So there we have it: freely choosing depression. What a statement on the super-rich lifestyle.

Toward the end of the novel, Whalen finally realizes he has been followed for quite some time, which leads to some real drama and propels him into real action fueled by the real emotion of revenge. Within this episode of revenge, Whalen relays the meaning of `the devil tree', a meaning involving the devil getting tangled in the tree's branches and turning the tree upside down. Considering his horrific childhood, Kosinski developed a sharp, penetrating observation of the plight of human entanglement when money is the tree. ( )
1 vote GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
There is a review on this site that points out the similarities between this and 'American Psycho' and while I would agree that the analysis of the two main characters differs, this is the far more compelling read, and in many ways makes Bret Easton Ellis' novel unnecessary. Ellis' work just pisses me off in general though. I don't like it. What I do like is Kosinski, this being a favorite. One of the few books I've given more than a single read, if for no other reason than I have found myself reminded of its character, Johnathan Whalen and various happenings in the book over the years. Can't quite explain it, but there it is, just sticking in my brain. ( )
1 vote drinkallsolution | Jun 13, 2009 |
Reading 'The Devil Tree' you can begin to see where Brett Easton Ellis might have gotten the idea for 'American Psycho'. The two share quite a lot in common, though Kosinski contemplates the existential dilemma of his main character in a different way, taking episodes from his life, his loves, and his travels to show how this lost soul came to be. There's little in the way of plot movement - it's hard to pin down the story at the heart of the novel - but it flows so well and the characters are so compelling that it hardly seems to matter. ( )
1 vote soylentgreen23 | Jun 10, 2009 |
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Jerzy Kosińskiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Timmers, OscarTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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He leaned against the steel balustrade at the end of the street, looking down at the East River.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802139655, Paperback)

A searing novel from a writer of international stature, The Devil Tree is a tale that combines the existential emptiness of Camus's The Stranger with the universe of international playboys, violence, and murder of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. Jonathan Whalen's life has been determined from the start by the immense fortune of his father, a steel tycoon. Whalen's childlike delight in power and status mask a greater need, a desire to feel life intensely, through drugs, violence, sex, and attempts at meaningful connection with other people -- whether lovers or the memory of his dead parents. But the physical is all that feels real to him, and as he embarks on a journey to Africa with his godparents, Whalen's embrace of amoral thrill accelerates toward ultimate fulfillment. Now in a Grove Press paperback, Kosinski's classic, acclaimed as "an impressive novel ... it should confirm Jerzy Kosinki's position as one of our most significant writers" -- Newsweek "Savage ... [Whalen is] a foolproof, timeless American character." -- Mary Ellin Barrett, Cosmopolitan

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:07 -0400)

A searing novel from a writer of international stature, The Devil Tree is a tale that combines the existential emptiness of Camus's The Stranger with the universe of international playboys, violence, and murder of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. Jonathan Whalen's life has been determined from the start by the immense fortune of his father, a steel tycoon. Whalen's childlike delight in power and status mask a greater need, a desire to feel life intensely, through drugs, violence, sex, and attempts at meaningful connection with other people -- whether lovers or the memory of his dead parents. But the physical is all that feels real to him, and as he embarks on a journey to Africa with his godparents, Whalen's embrace of amoral thrill accelerates toward ultimate fulfillment. Now in a Grove Press paperback, Kosinski's classic, acclaimed as "an impressive novel ... it should confirm Jerzy Kosinki's position as one of our most significant writers" -- Newsweek "Savage ... [Whalen is] a foolproof, timeless American character." -- Mary Ellin Barrett, Cosmopolitan… (more)

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