"To make any statement about the Irish character, it is usually best to say it in a story."
J.P. Donleavy from "Rogue's Brogue"
By Kent Black
"To make any statement about the Irish character, it is usually best to say it in a story," says J.P. Donleavy during a stroll around the grounds of his estate near Mullingar, Ireland, as he comments on his new book, A Singular Country (W. W. Norton & Co.), which is due out this month.
"There once was a wealthy American couple who bought a small estate in the West for the purpose of some fine fishing on the occasional visit. The American kept at his house his collection of expensive fishing rods. Now, they hired a local man to look after the property whenever they were out of the country. One day, the couple comes back from America only to discover that your Irishman has taken out his best rods. The wife is furious that your man is borrowing their property without permission and nags her husband to put Mick in his place. Well, your man arrives at the house bearing a string of beautiful trout. The moral of the story is that your man wanted to make a gift of the fish to the Yanks, but didn't want to embarrass them by his generosity, so he borrowed the rods to make it more equitable."
Donleavy, 64, is the author of such seminal comic works as The Ginger Man, The Onion Eaters and the dark, sardonic book of modern manners, The Unexpurgated Code. A Brooklyn native, Donleavy arrived in Dublin shortly after World War II with little more than his G.I.Bill and the great Irish dream of passing through the hallowed halls of Trinity College. Not very many law books suffered from his thumbing, however, and the bohemian life described in The Ginger Man fairly recounts his student days. Though his stay was interrupted by a lengthy sojourn to England, he has made the 180-acre estate his home since 1969, when the Irish government granted tax-free residence to artists and writers of merit. It is with some authority, therefore, that Donleavy delivers a true insider's guide to the shamrock land in this, his latest work.
Those expecting a discourse on the correct stance to assume when kissing the Blarney Stone or the price of an Aran Island woolly sweater had best consult Fodor's. Donleavy's guide is no less than an excursion into the character of the green island: It is a book of insults and insights, the kind of truthful, cruel and affectionate musings one has come to expect from the author who has spawned a generation of wickedly comic writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger or Joseph Heller. The tone and timbre are clear from the opening pages when he writes, "Ireland is from one coast to another chockablock full of fine decent people who, although they are capable of putting you accidentally to death, would never countenance doing so deliberately, and never is there any doubt that permanent harm was meant."
It is not, however, always easy to follow Donleavy's drift. A discourse on the genteel life of the country gentleman gives way to a discussion about the unreliability of servants that gives way to graphic ruminations on native sexual mores. Yet, the zigzag of Donleavy's thought is never boring; both his comically grand language and his earthy anecdotes are uniquely Irish.
In one chapter, a local butler who feels it incumbent to taste every bottle in the wine cellar to ensure it hasn't turned to vinegar, stumbles inebriated and unzipped into an elegant dinner party, thinking he's finally found the WC. Such farce demonstrates the author's fine sense of democracy: Our hearts go out to the lout, and we laugh most loudly at the outraged gentry who flee the unsheathed barbarian.
This is not to say that Donleavy confines himself to sardonic buffoonery. There is much here that rings true. He bemoans the advent of civilization upon the unsullied innocence of the land while at the same time railing against its backwardness. Such an attitude, while contradictory, is also typically Irish. He even addresses the "troubles" in the northern counties, but in inimitable fashion attests that Catholics blow up trains because they carry illegal contraceptives shipped to Protestants to decrease the Catholic population.
The unexpected is the norm in this collection, which is more an ode to Ireland than a group of essays. Donleavy has expertly woven together all the wonders and warts found in this singular country which he calls home.
To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.