Brendan Behan to JPD:
"You've got an awful reputation in Dublin as being quick to take offense. No one will go near you. Upon a dirty look you'd be hammering a man to the ground before he even had a decent chance to get a gun out of his pocket."
J.P. Donleavy's novel history proves why The Ginger Man's Sebastian Dangerfield is still a classic - but was never a saint
by Thomas Mallon
MANIC, LEAN, SEBASTIAN DANGERFIELD OCCUPIES SUCH A permanent place among modern literary characters that many readers forget how J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man experienced years of rejection and louche obscurity before finding mainstream publishers in the late 1950s. Still, once Dangerfield got onto library shelves, there was no shushing him. Of all the postwar era's Dionysian lads - those Angry Young Men and hipsters who thought the world owed them not just a living but ecstasy to boot - he remains the juiciest, the brawlingest, the carpe diem-est.
An American studying at Trinity College, Dublin, on the GI Bill, Dangerfield finds himself prematurely bound to a prim wife and crying child, uninclined to hit the books in a damp house with a collapsing toilet. Still in his twenties, he comes down the stairs each morning "martyred and mussed, feeble and fussed, heart and soul covered in cement." Caught in the contradictions of Ireland - its poetic drunks and platitudinous shopkeepers, its gorgeous soft rains falling over "the black smell of grease and germ and spermy towels" - Dangerfield flails on, an honorable lout, a shirker, seducer and sponge who sincerely bemoans "the lack of decency' around him, all the crimped meanness in a world he goes lilting through like a young Yankee version of Leopold Bloom.
He melts, among others, Mist Frost, the repressed botanist who gives herself to him in a passionate moment's foreplay to the orgy of churchly guilt with which she must follow it - after Dangerfield can't resist stealing her nylons: "Dear me, I am somewhat of a thief. Poor Lilly, but do realize it's the awful plight made me take them. Thirty shillings at a good London broker." When Dangerfield needs to elude the police, he robs a cripple of his coat, reminding a reader of his fictional contemporary, Capote's Holly Golightly, who would "steal two-bits off a dead man's eyes if [she] thought it would contribute to the day's enjoyment." So in love with his own needs and fulfillments is he that Dangerfield explains his refusal to wash by telling his wife that bathing "kills the personality." (I stink, therefore I am.) He never asks for anything but to be indulged, completely and unquestioningly, and he does it with such charm that you wind up thinking a person like this may actually have a case. No wonder S.J. Perelman, who was put off by the book's obscenity, found it, on the whole, "rather terrifying."
Now, more than forty years after writing the novel, Donleavy offers us The History of the Ginger Man (Houghton Mifflin, $27.50), a fine guide not only to the obstacles the book had to flatten but also to the way in which novels aren't so much cut from whole cloth as quilted - bits and pieces of the writer's own experience being mixed and matched with scraps of others'. The Ginger Man's devotees will learn the real-life origins of many of its details (that kangaroo outfit, for instance) and read the fullest account Donleavy has ever given of the life of Gainor Stephen Crist, his fellow-American friend at Trinity and Sebastian's true basis, the raucous flesh that was made word. This "entirely enchanting" man, a quicksilver compound of boundless compassion and phenomenal crust, had something "almost sacred" in his behavior, the author assures us. At little more than a look from him. men opened wallets and women hearts, oblivious to whatever holy mess he was making around them.
Those who knew Crist seemed incapable of thinking Donleavy's fictional rendition of this legend-in-their-midst might not win through, but after thirty-five publishers here and in England decided to pass on The Ginger Man, Donleavy settled for having it issued by the Olympia Press, in Paris. He would soon discover, to his horror, that the Olympia's proprietor, M. Maurice Girodias, was not thinking of the novel for the Collection Merlin imprint, under which he had published a volume by Samuel Beckett, but rather for his Traveller's Companion Series, whose titles included School for Sin, White Thighs and The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe. The book that Donleavy once imagined "blast[ing] its way through a resisting literary world" would finally see the murk of day as a numbered piece of smut. When his first copy arrived, the author "smashed [his] fist upon its green cover format...and [he] declared aloud, 'if it's the last thing I ever do, I will avenge this book.' "
More than twenty years later, he would not only regain all the rights to the by-then-much-read Ginger Man but would own Girodias's business, too. The History of The Ginger Man ends with Donleavy's successful acquisition of the Olympia Press through intermediaries at an auction: Girodias, "knocking over chairs and with trench coat flying from his shoulders, swept in a rage from the auction room...And so, with my enemy finally becoming mine, I ended up in the Paris courts actually in litigation with myself. Which I soon and wisely decided to settle."
The early portions of Donleavy's History are eye-opening fun, alive with memories of benders and friends, including a three-day spree with the writer Brendan Behan, who was on the eve of his short-lived prime:
"From the corner of my eye I watched him fill the huge piece of crockery with corn flakes, a tin of peaches, half a jar of tomato chutney, squares of cooking chocolate, pieces of bread, flour, a tin of sardines, milk, sugar, salt, spoonfuls of sugar, ketchup, baking soda, pieces of blood pudding, chopped bacon and a sample of everything within reach and in sight. On top of this concoction, as if it were a blessing, he poured my only bottle of stout. Mixing the lot with a wooden spoon and with a final pouring of milk to turn the concoction further liquid, Behan then put the bowl to his lips and in several massive mouthfuls downed it. With the bowl finally empty, he smacked and wiped his lips and turned around to see me watching with openmouthed wonder.
'Ah you know, Mike, I always like to look after my health.' "
Alas, Donleavy's gloss on The Ginger Man is far longer than the novel itself, and there are stretches (including the reproduction, verbatim, of much of the author's litigious correspondence) that make one feel M. Girodias's advice to the author on December 30, 1954 (that The Ginger Man be "reduced by one fifth, or one quarter or even one third"), required only forty years and a different book to become sound. There is too much personal pedantry (Crist was "ready to emigrate, sailing June 12 on the Georgic for New York, which he later changed to booking on the S.S. Ryndam, June 15, 1952"), and while a reader would like to put complete faith in the memory required to remix Behan's heroic slop, he gets some sense of that memory's human frailty: Donleavy could hardly, in 1955, have gone walking with the parents of Daniel Day-Lewis while they pushed the future actor in his pram, since the future actor wasn't born for another three years.
The weakest part of the book involves Donleavy's temporary return to his home in the Bronx during the early 1950s. One would have thought that, after its embalming by David Halberstram, that poor, maligned decade would at last be free from the clichés that have been constantly hung on it, but Donleavy uses and underlines the baldest of them. America was "a country ruled by corporate mores and riddled by fear and suspicion" and The Ginger Man rejection a concerted effort by "the mealymouthed, who were everywhere behind their corporate shiny desks, ready to suppress, squash and snuff out any original voice who wasn't saying what they thought should be said in order that they could keep their job till retirement." (Shortly before this ululation, Donleavy himself hadn't much trouble being "a carefree believer in one's ultimate millionaireship," from the "fortune and acclaim" he expected the States to shower upon his book.)
Setting off once more for Ireland, in the company of Crist, the author insists that the two of them "fought well and valiantly against the cowardly mealymouthed," but it will seem to the reader that they spent more time in self-congratulation than any meaningful rebellion. Having had too hard a struggle to see his minor masterpiece through, Donleavy is entitled to his grudges and to his preference in decades, but the 1990s, a time when one can bet The Ginger Man is finding its way onto fewer and fewer politically correct syllabi, would seem a subject more worthy of consideration and scorn.
Donleavy writes about The Ginger Man ("and all that novel stood for") with a stunning self-reverence, and while that novel remains a grand book, it is no more a holy text than Gainor Stephen Crist was a saint. The History supplies enough evidence of his mindless rage and "his being dreadfully, eye-poppingly rude" to convince one, despite all the homage paid his memory here, that Crist would have been, for most readers who have loved The Ginger Man, just as tiresome to know in life as the troops of ladies who have laid claim to being the model for Holly Golightly. The refractive charms of fiction, its translation of impossible people into wonderful characters, is not the least reason the completely impossible D.H. Lawrence called novels "the one bright book of life."
To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.