J.P. Donleavy: The Ginger Man

Donleavy, J. P. (2001), The Ginger Man, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-3795-1

J.P. Donleavy is an excellent writer, but a comparatively badly known one. His extraordinary early novels, published in rapid succession in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, received a moderate (but decent) amount of attention when they came out, but there has been precious little of that attention in the decades since. Unlike other writers of with a similarly miserable quality/attention-ratio, there has been no Donleavy revival. With Johnny Depp tipped for taking the lead role in a movie adaptation of one of his novels, that could change, though. The book (that may or may not be filmed) is The Ginger Man, Donleavy’s debut, and still his most famous novel. The Ginger Man is a major achievement, not just one of the best books I read this year, but one of the best American novels I’ve ever read, period. The plain facts are these: in The Ginger Man, Donleavy manages to create a book that uses and comments on the music and language of a literary tradition, all while inventing a very original, singular use of language. His originality is not jarring, not difficult. On the contrary, reading The Ginger Man is like watching a virtuoso have fun with the tools of his trade but with the added pleasure of being immersed in an intoxicating narrative stream. A funny, wild obsession with death and life, it’s both clever and stirring, and should be a staple at universities as well as on the shelves of avid readers. The fact that it’s neither is disappointing, and should be corrected as soon as possible. Buy this book and, if you have the opportunity, write about it. In the trajectory of American canonical prose, Donleavy is a singular writer whose role and importance has yet to be fully recognized. But most of all: read it, read it. It may fill a gap in you that you didn’t know you had, and its protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield, will never again leave your imagination.

I’ll just say it: in the character of Sebastian Dangerfield, John Patrick Donleavy has created one of the most stunning characters in modern fiction. Donleavy draws on many sources, voices and registers, but the fact of the matter is that Dangerfield is at once a bitter everyman, das ewig Männliche, so to say, and a finely tuned individual character. Dangerfield’s choices, his attitude, they distinguish him from characters that might seem similar, such as Henry Miller’s scabrous portfolio of protagonists. He’s a multifaceted character, who invites identification, derision, humor, sadness and revulsion. Despite the sheen of realism on his actions, he seems to have fallen out of time: Dangerfield is not a historical character, representing a time long gone, nor is he properly of his time, which would be the 1950s. Actually, The Ginger Man was published in London and Paris in 1955, but not until 1965 has Donleavy seen a publication of an unexpurgated version of his marvelous novel in the United States. That delay mirrors in a way two levels within the novel, its overtly Irish setting, and its American sensibility, if one can call it that; two layers which seem to come naturally to a writer like Donleavy, an American who has lived most of his writing life in Ireland, an American with Irish roots to boot. It may be that specific genealogical mixture that creates the high level of believability in the book. Notwithstanding the fact that The Ginger Man is highly artificial, Donleavy appears to completely inhabit his material. I already mentioned the musicality of the book, and reading The Ginger Man, we have the impression of a folk or blues singer, reaching deep into tradition, into the voluble core of culture to extract an essence that he then turns into his art.

Sebastian Dangerfield, his wife, mistresses and friends, appear to be realistic creations, faithful to observed and artistically cleared reality. The plot of The Ginger Man is easily enough summarized. Dangerfield, an American, is, at the beginning, a married man, living with his English wife Marion, whom he married for her impressive bosom and her fashionably bucked teeth, in a squalid apartment. The fact that the house they live in is adjacent to an abyss (and slowly dropping into it) might even be read as a minor symbolical fancy. Subsequently, the small family will move into two other houses, eventually even taking in a boarder, until Marion leaves her insufferable husband. Dangerfield is a horrible husband to have: he sleeps with every woman that would have him, is out drinking almost every night, and incurs debts in order to finance his vices. He doesn’t work, in fact, he expresses horror at the idea of working regularly. Instead, his small family lives off the small check from the G.I. Bill that arrives weekly; what’s more, Dangerfield’s father is rich, and Sebastian hopes for a substantial inheritance that will wipe out all his debts and allow him to live comfortably. Marion is reticent, no match for Dangerfield’s vigorous libido and his gluttonous ways, and it’s not until the last third of the book that Dangerfield takes up with a woman who is just as mad and wild as he is, he, “the wild / Ginger Man.” All this seems straightforward enough, but it’s hard, really, to describe the book without giving away the symbolic and metaphorical underpinnings of a great many aspects of the novel, or of its use of cultural and literary cliché. In fact, this reader had the impression that every seemingly realistic aspect of The Ginger Man could be footnoted and referenced.

Donleavy, born in 1929, is, ultimately, a writer of exile, greedy for the voice and feel of his new Irish home, with the eye and ear of a poet or musician. He writes with the heart of an exile, lacing his symphony of sex, violence and religion with just enough distance, thinking and commentary. See, overall, I think, there’s a tension in The Ginger Man between form, or maybe artifice, on the one hand, and the basic music of the book on the other. It’s in his role as a novelist, that Donleavy seems to me a very American writer, best read in a group with writers such as Robert Coover or John Barth rather than with writers such as James Joyce or Joyce Cary, although the voice in The Ginger Man owes a lot to the Joycean model. Donleavy navigates between these poles with such a deftness of hand and sureness of mind that it’s actually rather stunning that The Ginger Man could be his (or anyone’s) debut novel. It’s so fully formed, finished and powerful an achievement that many writers would be hard pressed to produce anything of comparable quality in their whole life. The most impressive and stunning aspect of The Ginger Man is its language. I would argue that J.P. Donleavy is first and foremost a creator of language. Ideas, characters, references, structure, they are all second to the actual language employed by this extraordinary writer. Or rather: his control and use of language is such that it creates the web of ideas and especially the character of Sebastian Dangerfield as we find it in the pages of The Ginger Man. The impoverished ideas (if we can even call them that) of recent critics such as David Shields would be blunt and useless tools when dealing with a writer and a book like this.

The Ginger Man, though the work of an American writer, is peppered with English and Irish phrases, mimicking the melodies of both languages, and, as with almost all its details, reflects its artful use of dialect, linguistic variation and slang in the plot. Dangerfield is a classic ne’er-do-well, up to his ears in debt, but constantly racking up new debts and liabilities. His puzzling success in doing so, his apparent ability to always continue whatever nocent habit he happens to have acquired, are shown, in the book, to be only vaguely connected to his winning personality or his rhetorical skills. Instead, it’s his versatile use of various dialects of English, whether Irish English, RP/Queen’s English or American English, Dangerfield makes able and ample use of them all, depending on what effect he hopes to achieve. We as readers follow his tongue down these wild alleyways, spellbound by his music as his various lovers are, and the merchants, barmen, and landlords, of course. But the actual dialogue isn’t even the best or most fascinating aspect of Donleavy’s use of language. The narration is sometimes third person, sometimes first person, but it’s always personal, focusing on Dangerfield, channeling his voice. Donleavy stretches and shortens syntax at will, littering his writing with ellipses, skillfully controlling speed and melody of the story that is being told. At times we find almost a Joycean stream of consciousness, as actions, observations and emotions vie with each other in the bubbling cauldron of Dangerfield’s story. This invokes an immediacy that underlines the perennial hurry, the progressive push that is evidenced in Dangerfield’s character. Whereas Joyce’s work used that same intimacy and immediacy, gained through its use of language, to make a meaningful observations about day-to-day life and its mythical underpinnings, Donleavy’s interests lie elsewhere.

The forward thrust of the language pushes through the chronotopical boundaries of modernism, although, as a novel, the book is closed, rounded, a text that is as much about beginnings as it is about endings. Like many old texts, in the manner, for example, of Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, Donleavy incorporates small poems within the text or, more often, at the end of a chapter. These small poems are, like Bashō’s, dense little bullets of meaning, and are part of his overarching formal and intellectual structure of the novel. They provide both a link to the modernists, as well as to the Beat movement that was influenced by many Asian poets, including Bashō. They also create a distance between The Ginger Man and Joyce’s Ulysses. While Joyce, in the end, passed up the opportunity to name his chapters in the printed text, and added the famous table of symbols and references that structure his novel not until after publication later, Donleavy’s text explicitly insists upon its artificial nature. The inserted poems and letters as well as the recurring poetically distant paragraphs ask the book’s reader to see the book more as an object: it is this method that makes the stream of consciousness visible. Instead of a retread of Joycean language, it uses it as Joycean language, as a connection between the Irish setting and the ‘Irish style’. It is an artfully struck note that Donleavy knew would resonate with his readers’ memories of Joyce, but at the same time, he never limits the Joycean register, boxes it in or restricts it in any way. There is no attempt to sunder the reality of Dublin (which feels very real and is probably accurately described) from the literately mirrored images of Dublin.

Instead, Donleavy lets all these aspects coexist, as several worlds within the same book. The book doesn’t force its reader to decide upon any one reading, any specific, ‘true’ frame. This postmodern ambiguity is also evident in the images and symbols used and evoked in the novel. The Ginger Man carries associations to the gingerbread man from the fairy tales (chased by a hungry crowd of peasants and animals, escaping them all, only to be, woefully, eaten by the fox), as well as, loosely, to the figure of Jesus Christ (after all, Dangerfield frequently assumes the pose of savior, and his seduction of women often takes the form, almost, of a conversion), and to various traditions and tropes of satire. Between the surreal, fantastical setting of fairy tales and the strict, harshly melodious structure of the Catechism, Donleavy spins a tale that seems to aim for radicalism, for an obscene modernity, but is actually far more inclusive. Yes, The Ginger Man is a satiric work, taking its cue (and the protagonist’s hair color) from such antecedents as Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where it says that “[i]t is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.” In its depictions of the material limitations on life in Ireland, its descriptions of the strictures and sorrows that poverty means for those who suffer from it, Donleavy uses the sharpness and precision of image and metaphor that distinguishes most acute satire, but as a whole the novel lacks the intellectual discipline or the focus of good satire. Instead, satire turns out to be yet another of the many notes woven into in the musical tapestry of The Ginger Man.

It is impossible to do justice to the many complexities of The Ginger Man, but I should mention the morality or immorality of the novel, since it’s not an unimportant aspect of a novel that has been banned for immorality and that still has to stave off accusations of immorality. Sebastian Dangerfield is an awful person. He abuses his women, is disloyal and unfaithful to all his friends and all the women he sleeps with in the book. And there is not a shred of regret in him, not an ounce of repentance. Dangerfield just continues on and on and on. The novel makes no attempt to stop him, explain him or disapprove of him. In fact, a case of abuse at the end turns a difficult situation in his favor, and overall, he’s maddeningly successful. It is to the use of religion that we must look to make sense of this, I think. Ireland, which “has a great capacity for hatred” is “not a place for women”, a character exclaims. In his sexual exploits, Dangerfield makes use of established patterns of behavior of the people around him. Just as he knows when to appear American and when Irish, so he can manipulate women by deciding upon the correct use of force. The society he lives in is one that repels him, alienates him and the cold application of implicit rules is his reaction to that society. We don’t have to like him, but his hurt and harried soul is something that many people will recognize in their own heart.

Dangerfield is frequently beset by a nostalgic yearning for the rural landscapes of his home, which come close to epiphanies, causing him to mutter “God must be female”. At one point he says about Ireland “this country is foreign to me.” He wouldn’t, however, every really return home, because home is his father’s country. The alienation he feels is the conflict with a male-oriented culture, that he can’t escape within or without his self. The language slows down, becomes careful, tender and languorous only (but not always) when describing sexual acts or other acts of intimacy with women. There isn’t an all-out attack on fathers in the book, after all, Dangerfield is not only a father himself, but an alpha male to boot. On the level of language and reference, too, this is not the modernist impulse of ‘making it new’, with the Freudian impulses described in Harold Bloom’s only good book; its attitude towards patriarchy is similar to the one that manifested itself in canonical American prose works such as Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor or Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father. That last book is maybe the most relevant comparison. The alienation Dangerfield feels isn’t one between the world and him, it’s caused by the fact that he represents much of the world outside within him, and its dying off is mirrored in his own prolonged process of dying. In one of the best of these small poems he tells us: “my heart / twisted / with dying”. With his life at stake, its a small wonder that he flees into life, procreation, intoxication.

Hence, Donleavy’s irreverent, even blasphemous use of religious references is not a simple satiric attack on religion. It reflects rather an unease with a certain form of religion, because Dangerfield’s pursuit of happiness is strongly religious. The fear of death that permeates even the funniest pages in this hilarious novel is not a Freudian or existentialist fear. It is a religious fear, fueled by closeness of the Dionysian abyss. God isn’t dead, he’s a deus absconditus, an absent, a hidden God. In this reductive, but (I think) correct reading, form, and language become parts of ritual. This seems to be an oddly heavy note on which to end a review of a light, funny, wild novel, but the vastness, the rich nature of Donleavy’s spectacular debut invites readings like this. It is a book of countless treasures, but primarily, it provides a ride like few others can. If you trust me, read the book.


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