Is one break
Which is not
- J.P. Donleavy from The Ginger Man
J.P. Donleavy's Classic: Behind the Scenes With the Ginger Man"
by Paul D. Colford
AH, TO HAVE BEEN in Dublin when the second war was over.
"It was tremendous from the point of view that Ireland was the only place in Europe that wasn't damaged and blown up." recalls the writer J.P. Donleavy, an ex-Navy man who was attending Trinity College on the G.I. Bill of Rights. "There were eggs and butter. This sounds crazy now, but to have a piece of butter or a steak was a miraculous thing. Almost every evening, when the pub would get jammed, it was a kind of celebration. I think it was a romanticized time in a way. There could have been an unconscious feeling that this was the beginning of world peace."
Donleavy, author of "The Ginger Man," the comic classic and perennial seller set in that time and place, takes us back again in "The History of The Ginger Man" (Houghton Mifflin), whose fitting publication date is this very St. Patrick's Day. The new book is an autobiographical howler that traces the Brooklyn-born transplant's romps with the mischievous writer Brendan Behan, who was the first to read "The Ginger Man" and encourage Donleavy as a novelist; Maurice Girodias, whose Paris-based Olympia Press first published the book, in 1955, after it was turned down by American publishers; and Gainor Stephen Crist, the model for Sebastian Dangerfield, the Ginger Man himself.
Crist was a slothful Midwestern charmer who believed in "vegetative nirvana" - that is "the possibility of energy emanating from the inertia of absolute indolence." One day he had to run for his bus from a restaurant, but did so while holding his plate and beer bottle. He then took a seat and continued eating. As Behan described the episode to his pal Donleavy: "Now, I'll tell you one thing...whatever else we may say or think about him [Crist], on thing is a certainty that he has as a human being demonstrated his great practicality."
Donleavy, now 67, has long since become a literary curiosity - an Irish citizen since 1967 who lives like a recluse squire on 200 acres in the Westmeath countryside. Resplendent this day in a corduroy suit, his tweed cap on the table, the white-haired George Bernard Shaw lookalike sits by a fire during a visit to New York and appears ages removed from the wide-eyed, brawling Yank who lived his book's saucy tales.
But the serenity of his demeanor does not water down the whiskey jolt of his views. He says he reads hardly any literary fiction - he prefers newspapers - and he looks with mournful disdain at the commercial imperative that he considers the curse of the writing life in this country.
"When I failed to get 'The Ginger Man' published here, I realized that this wasn't any place I was ever going to survive," he says. "I became very conscious of the writer's role. You know, it's like a baseball game. You get up, it's three strikes, you're out, or you hit a home run, whereas in Europe I was conscious of the fact that you're a writer and you stay that way. You begin that way, you end that way. I'm very intimidated by America," he says. "I don't know how that is."
And to hear Donleavy tell it - in an anglicized accent through with nasal New York A's (on "man" and "land," for example) still penetrate - a feminist backlash in American publishing circles his come to impede him in more recent years.
Although he offers no specifics to support his suspicion, he claims that he cannot find a publisher for the third volume of his "Schultz" series, in which his main character is arranging to have a hit man kill his wife. "It's feminism," he alleges. "It must be." He says that Schultz "would be taken as a totally antifeminist hero."
When I express surprise that he would state these sentiments on the record, he adds: "I almost think it [feminism] conspires on every level. Unbelievable. Any business matters, anything. There's nothing you can do with a woman in terms of business because of suspicion and a caution...It's almost as if a negative attitude must be employed in anything to do with a man."
Twice-divorced, Donleavy lives in his 18-century Irish mansion together with his 23-year-old girlfriend and her daughter, as well as an earlier companion, age 32, who had returned to the writer's home with two children of her own.
The nonconformist manner that has marked Donleavy's personal life carries over to his business affairs. He has always been his own literary agent and is known as a tenacious negotiator.
"I'm an unbelievable fan of his," says Carl Navarre, who in the mid-1980s obtained for Atlantic Monthly Press the lucrative paperback rights to "The Ginger Man" after cutting the deal with Donleavy himself. "He is an incredible negotiator. He loves to negotiate. He takes pleasure in it and he does it at great length."
An why would a literary legend, especially one living far from the New York publishing industry, burden himself with the many particulars of agenting?
"An agent knows when you're washed up and you're finished, and is likely to circulate that, when all writers are always on the verge of being washed up and finished." Donleavy says with a laugh. "I mean, they need that to live...You have to be [washed up and finished], mentally, just to go on to do the next thing, to keep the battle going."
Indeed, as Donleavy takes his leave, and struts swiftly into the cold afternoon without an overcoat, he looks every crisp inch a man prepared to keep his personal battle going for years to come.