I have caught my neck in a
mangle and will be indisposed
- J.P. Donleavy from The Ginger Man
Man Amuck - J.P. Donleavy's 'The Ginger Man,' long banned as blasphemous pornography,
is 50 years old, but its antic, brawling hero is as irresistible as ever"
by Joe Keohane
A LITTLE MORE THAN 50 years ago, in a Dublin known for its wild young and its fidgety devout, and a Europe still struggling after years of war, a holy terror by the name of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield was inflicted upon the world. Rich son and busted husband, wife-beater and maudlin romantic, personal friend to Christ and bitter foe to any Papist worth his weight in holy pendants-few knew what to make of him then, even fewer now, but the fact that he's never left us is a measure of his worth.
Dangerfield is the hero of J.P. Donleavy's ''The Ginger Man." First published in Paris in 1955, it tells the raucous story of an Irish-American ex-pat living in bohemian Dublin after the war. His wife, an upper-class English woman with whom he's sired a child, has begun to realize the magnitude of her error. Her husband-27 years old and capable of great displays of soul and poetical charm-is flunking law at Trinity. Up to his eyeballs in debt, dogged by landlords, soaked with drink, cadging off of friends and strange women, he's as prone to rhapsodize about the sadness and beauty of Ireland as he is to scatter the teeth of her more savage inhabitants.
''The Ginger Man," the first and most famous novel by the fleet-fisted, Bronx-born Donleavy, is a grasping, brawling testament to what the author once cited as a chief artistic principle: ''To make your mother and father drop dead with shame." The book has never been out of print, having sold an estimated 45 million copies in hundreds of editions. Especially beloved in Ireland, where it was banned for its first 20 years, it recently clawed its way into the 99th spot on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best 20th-century novels in English. Dorothy Parker called it ''the picaresque novel to stop them all"; V.S. Naipaul observed that ''on every page there is that immediacy that all good writing has."
And indeed, it's an intoxicating read, quintessentially Irish in its cobbling of joy and sadness, sentimentality and violence. For more than five decades, young readers have had whole literary vistas opened by it, among them the late Hunter S. Thompson, who obsessed over the book as a struggling young writer in New York. Alive in a way few books are, its combination of gorgeous writing, brilliant comedy, pathos, and unrelenting amorality has made it a cult classic, a rite of passage, practically a literary religion.
Or perhaps a literary anti-religion. Dangerfield, like Donleavy's other protagonists, battles relentlessly against a world-to borrow from Orwell-of ''smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."
But ''The Ginger Man," and the career it launched, didn't come easily. Donleavy, who like his protagonist went to Dublin to flunk law at Trinity under the GI Bill, unsuccessfully submitted his bawdy manuscript to more than 50 publishers before he took the advice of Brendan Behan, Ireland's patron saint of gleeful blasphemy, and sent it to the fabled Olympia Press. Based in Paris and helmed by publisher Maurice Girodias, Olympia had published Vladimir Nabokov (''Lolita"), William Burroughs (''Naked Lunch"), Henry Miller (''Plexus"), Samuel Beckett (the Molloy/Malone trilogy), Terry Southern (''Candy"), and whole scows of cheap, pseudonymous pornography.
Girodias accepted the book, seemingly on its literary merits, then published it as part of the pornographic Traveler's Companion Series, which included such timeless classics as ''School for Sin" and ''The Enormous Bed." Donleavy promptly sued, claiming Girodias had broken their contract by releasing ''The Ginger Man" as smut. After more than two decades of bitter legal warfare, Girodias was ruined, and Donleavy (''a legal wizard," according to Girodias) was the new owner of Olympia.
Despite Girodias's best efforts, ''The Ginger Man" makes for bad porn (it's not explicit enough). But what it lacks in that department, it more than makes up for in others. Early on it was condemned on grounds of blasphemy, profanity, and amorality. These days, it's more often dismissed for its alleged prefeminist viewpoint and its author's abject disregard for plot and character development. The former is debatable, the latter isn't. ''The Ginger Man" is indeed a one-note performance. And that note is high C.
The book's opening scene tells you much of what you need to know about Dangerfield. Having pawned his electric heater-possibly the only thing keeping his small family's dilapidated cold-water cottage inhabitable-he meets up with his boon companion, the hyper, hapless, sex-starved Kenneth O'Keefe, and the two complain of the indignities of hunger and destitution. Dangerfield, looking for a way out of their predicament, quietly repairs to his bedroom and begins chopping up a good blue blanket with an axe. ''Watch me," he tells a mortified O'Keefe. ''See? Put this round the neck like this, tuck in the ragged edges and presto. I'm now wearing Trinity's rowing blue. Always best to provide a flippant subtlety when using class power. Now we'll see about getting a little credit."
A man of wit, intelligence, and, let's say, adaptive ethics, Dangerfield craves wealth but is constitutionally incapable of working for it; he craves peace, but is hard-wired for bedlam. When neither wealth nor peace come of their own accounts, he sees a conspiracy with himself as the victim. He's abused ''by all manner of men," he tells O'Keefe. ''But there's no bitterness in me. Only love. I want to show them the way and I expect only taunts and jeers."
As the book roars on, it becomes clear to the increasingly desperate Dangerfield that the world will never warm to his utopian expectations. Indeed, Dangerfield's suffering eventually takes on an almost saintly glint. When a perceived insult leads a drunken Dangerfield to throw a whiskey bottle at a bartender, escaping the police on a stolen bicycle-surely one of the great comic sequences in all of Irish literature-the fugitive, exhausted, holes up with his girlfriend. ''I want you to tell me how I can get away from evil in this world," he tells her. ''How to put down the sinners and raise the doers of good. I've been through a frightful evening. Indeed my suffering has been acute and more."
The next morning's paper arrives with a front page story on his rampage, headlined ''MAN AMUCK IN PUBLIC HOUSE."
''Libel," says Dangerfield.
If there's a point to all this, for 50 years critics have had a hard time pinning it down. ''The Ginger Man" isn't a coming-of-age story; Dangerfield doesn't really change much or learn anything. It's not an angry-young-man novel because neither the protagonist nor the novelist seem to care much about the plight of the working man. It's gut-funny, but the beauty and dread keep it from being a straight comic novel. And you can't even say it's a cautionary tale, because however atrocious his behavior may be, and whatever the consequences, Dangerfield is still an incredibly attractive character.
Perhaps, then, the point is simply this: resistance for its own sake. Resistance as a moral virtue. As Dangerfield says to O'Keefe: ''Got to fight. Must resist or go down in the pile."
It's an adolescent urge.
Society requires conditioning, compromise, obedience. It's liberating to see
Dangerfield refuse outright. You know it's a losing fight, and you know you
shouldn't be rooting for him, but there you are.
And there he is, 50 years later. He hasn't won, but he hasn't lost either.
''When I die," Dangerfield muses late in the book, ''I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin. I wonder would they know it was me?"
Joe Keohane is the editor of Boston's Weekly Dig.