On Dublin after the
end of the war.
"But it was in Dublin of the time [Autumn of 1946] where came the greatest burst of exuberance and reveling if not rapture where it was man a time heard said at hooleys and in many a pub,
'Cheer up or I'll Break your face.'"
- J.P. Donleavy from The History of The Ginger Man
in the Making of 'The Ginger Man'"
by Bill Dunn
Copyright © Bill Dunn 2007
To keep a fire alive to cook sausages, Irish playwright Brendan Behan tossed papers onto the flames. One of the papers was an unpublished poem by a then-struggling writer named James Patrick Donleavy.
Also a struggling painter in Dublin of the early 1950s, the American-born Donleavy sold an early oil to someone who used it to plug a hole in a farm fence.
Skipping classes at Dublin's Trinity College on the G.I. Bill, a determined Donleavy wrote "The Ginger Man," one of the great post-war novels that was rejected by 35 publishers. At Behan's urging, Donleavy sent his manuscript to a Paris publisher that he didn't know. The Olympia Press published his novel in 1955, but as part of a sideline of porno pulp fiction.
Such are the comic misadventures crammed in J.P. Donleavy's alternately hilarious and deadly serious new book, "The History of The Ginger Man" (Houghton Mifflin, $32.50) - his 18th since "The Ginger Man" began his prolific career in letters and litigation. Writing in his distinctive voice that mixes the poetic and the occasionally profane, Donleavy as always, is provocative, iconoclastic and not for the easily offended.
This richly detailed autobiography will be prized by a loyal readership that Donleavy's earned, while also appealing to a broader audience because of its biting social commentary on post-war Europe and America, and its dramatic testament of a writer's unshakable belief in himself and his work.
Olympia in its Collection Merlin published respected writers like Samuel Beckett, whose ranks Donleavy assumed he was joining after doing a little investigating of Olympia - too little. Olympia also produced The Traveler's Companion - pseudonymous paperback porn. Putting "The Ginger Man" on The Traveler's list gave the series literary pretensions. Donleavy missed a key clue when Olympia asked if he wanted to use a pen name.
"The Ginger Man" is a wild comedy of manners, fisticuffs and collided values set in Ireland, where a defiantly independent American rogue named Sebastian Dangerfield - The Ginger Man - rages. Not your typical Irish tale, yet certainly not porn. "The Ginger Man" is in the tradition of James Joyce. Predicted Behan: "This book of yours is going to go around the world and beat the bejesus out of the Bible." He got the first part right.
Himself a no-surrender gent, Donleavy battled Olympia to reclaim rights to the novel to place it with mainstream houses in the U.S. and Britain. Publishers there at first would only produce expurgated editions - reminiscent of Joyce's "Ulysses." A Dublin stage production of "The Ginger Man" starring Richard Harris fueled riots by some who viewed it as anti-Irish.
But Donleavy prevailed, eventually winning strong - if not unanimous - critical acclaim for "The Ginger Man." Its first unexpurgated U.S. edition appeared in 1965. Still in print in a dozen languages, the novel's sold five million copies worldwide.*
While many assume that Donleavy himself is the Ginger Man, the model for Dangerfield was actually a dandy at Trinity named Gainor Stephen Crist, whom we meet here. In a hilarious scene, Crist dresses for a pal's wedding in top hat, cutaway and striped trousers. A damp dress shirt is hastily ironed on an unhinged door. The iron causes the door's green paint to stick to the shirt, which a nonplused Crist dons. On his feet are tennis shoes because the dog ate his black pumps. Dashing off, he steps into a dog's mess, then flags down and jumps into a passing car, which carries the bride. At the church, Crist exits with the bride to popping flashbulbs and offended noses.
It's all there in "The History of The Ginger Man," which also serves as a cautionary tale against censorship. Donleavy's struggling in the 1950s climate of political paranoia are relevant today as artists battle censorship attempts from the Left and Right.
Donleavy then became an Irish citizen, living on his estate, Levington Park, in county Westmeath, Ireland, a country that respects their artist by not taxing them.
Donleavy is also a publisher.
His first act after buying the Olympia Press at a bankruptcy sale a decade
ago was to withdraw his pending suit against it. Donleavy closes his latest
book as he did his first:
On The Wild
*Compendium note: The Ginger Man has now been published in 30 languages and has sold over 45 million copies.
To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.