Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman"
By James Cahalan
J.P. Donleavy's sardonic delight in the alliterative title will not be new to followers of his fiction (The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B), nor will the renewal of his obsessive pursuit of the contemporary picro figure be surprising, for Donleavy, a New York emigré to Ireland, has been in pursuit of the picaresque ever since he introduced his roguish world to us with a big bang, in the shape of The Ginger Man (1955). American commentators on The Ginger Man have done well to point to a thematic root of that novel in the children's story of the gingerbread man who, after baking for nine months in a little old lady's oven, bolts out the door in a race for survival and eventually confronts a deceitful fox, who offers him a piggyback ride across the river and then, after they reach the other side, eats him. However, it took an Irishman, John Ryan (Remembering How We Stood: Bohemian Dublin at Mid-Century, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1975), to identify the biographical link between "Sebastian Dangerfield" and Gainor Crist from Dayton, Ohio, an acquaintance of Donleavy and member of that Dublin circle of the 1950s which included Paddy Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, and Brian O'Nolan. In The Ginger Man, Donleavy omits the usual picaresque account of the rogue's birth, choosing instead to root Sebastian decidedly in the present; it is understood that his gingerbread man is already out of the oven, engaged in his mad dash for survival. He gives us the open ending characteristic of the picaresque tradition, leaving Sebastian mired in the process of consuming himself, as it were, rather than having been consumed by the fox (or by cirrhosis, as was Gainor Crist).
Darcy Dancer is perhaps even more traditionally picaresque, for it is not only furnished with the open ending ("Not tonight shall we find him. Curled up below ground safe from the fierce mad winds and fangs. But another day. Disturb his tranquility. And chase. Call by tongue. Yell by name. To out beyond. In his destiny. For he discourses somewhere. That Darcy / That Dancer / That Gentleman"), but it also begins with the traditional birth account, according to which, in this instance, Darcy's father decreed by telegram that his son be named after a hundred-to-one longshot that had just won him a bundle at the races. Darcy takes up the race from there, faltering forward in the stumbling, stuttering syntax familiar to readers of The Ginger Man: "Run. Flying. Over the grey grey walls. Out under the scattered clouds. Gallop thundering on the endless green. Find him."
I seems that everyone who has written about Donleavy's novels agrees that they are "picaresque," but there has been little clarity about just what sort of "picaresques" he has fashioned. Donleavy has given us a series of rogues, but there are considerable variations on his roguish theme. Dangerfield, for example, seems to be a Don Juan to the core - deceptive, callous, and pathetic. Darcy Dancer is a more frustrated Don Quixote: there is a streak of stymied chivalry in the midst of all his debaucheries. Darcy is a "gentleman" who has been turned out of house and inheritance. The money-grubbing Dangerfield seems closer to the traditionally lower-class picaresque mold, but an antecedent for the disinherited nobleman theme in Darcy Dancer can be found in another alliteratively titled picaresque novel, Smollett's Roderick Random (1748), in which Roderick roams through the underworld after being disinherited by his tyrannical grandfather. Roderick eventually recovers his inheritance, while Darcy is left dragging through Dear, Dirty Dublin; Smollett employs the theme as a foil to his rationalist, orderly 18th-century view of society, while Donleavy uses it to underscore his vision of an enduring chaos. With his mother dead and his father gone, Darcy receives the usual haphazard picaresque education: he is schooled not only by the morose schoolteacher, Mr. Arland, but by Foxy Slattery, stableboy and true bog-trotter, and then in Dublin by the slick-talking Rashers Ronald and the perverse Lois. Back at Andromeda Park, that estate with the otherworldly name, Darcy continues his sexual education with Miss von B., falls in love with her, and tries nobly if pathetically to run the place: "So who are you." "I'm the gentry." His tyrannical father (à la Roderick Ransom) storms back upon the scene to have it out with him, and Darcy heads back toward Bohemian Dublin, living on credit, the fruits of menial labor, and sheer endurance. He bails himself out at the end only by winning his own bundle at the races (the recovered inheritance after all?).
The picaresque novel is traditionally a first-person, autobiographical narrative. Donleavy deliberately blurs the traditional like between subjectivity and objectivity by scrambling first- and third-person narrative: "Darcy Dancer stretching out his stiff limbs...During these chill and slowly starving past two days. To always and always at all costs keep hunching forward. Rub my eyes. Hands immovable with cold. Massage my joints." If Donleavy's thematic choices seem quite traditional, his style is very contemporary. The fluctuating narrative point of view here seems close to that of a Nabokov, while the jagged, verb-starved syntax would be unimaginable without Joyce and Beckett having gone before. A syntax that proceeds by stops and starts is appropriate to a mind which thinks that way and to a protagonist who, in fact, acts that way: Darcy jumps and jerks away from us toward an indefinite point on the horizon.
Theme and style - the traditional mode and the contemporary manner - seem eventually to merge for Donleavy. In turning to the picaresque mode, Donleavy has linked himself to a tradition in which life has always been presented as chaotic; in which protagonist and antagonist alike are at the mercy of face and happenstance. This tradition is continued in Darcy Dancer: the schoolhouse burns down on the very day of Darcy's arrival; a brutish rival interrupts Darcy in bed with Lois; his father appears on the scene just in time to separate him from Miss von B, and so forth. In linking himself to the picaresque tradition, Donleavy sets himself apart from those of his contemporaries who seem almost to preach absurdity as a moral imperative rather that battle with it as a day-to-day hurdle. Donleavy's gritty view of the world is a long way from, say, the entropic philosophy of Thomas Pynchon. The adventures of Pynchon's picaroons underscore a view according to which the universe seems doomed to eventual extinction, while Darcy wants to join the fox hunt, to join the gentry, to simply get on in the world. Sebastian Dangerfield attempts to mooch off the comfortable classes of society, while Darcy wants to merely reclaim that comfort status he felt should have been his all along. An inspection of Donleavy's one "factual" book, The Unexpurgated Code: a Complete Manual of Survival and Manners (1975), a sketchy, sardonic tome with vast sections on "social climbing," "Vilenesses Various," "In Pursuit of Comfortable Habits," and "Mischiefs and Memorabilia," would seem to indicate that Darcy's social ascents and descents, rather than being emblematic of any abstract view of the universe, are indicative of concrete, shared concerns on Donleavy's part. The prevailing present tense in Darcy Dancer and other picaresques, along with the open ending, emphasizes the current and continual nature of the search for the gratification of the self. If Donleavy, removed from the shores of Lough Owel, does in fact have a philosophy of life, it would seem to be finally the unrefined, unadmirable, and certainly distinctive view that it is essentially a matter of "every rogue for himself."
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