over the blooming place"
A SINGULAR MAN by J. P. Donleavy
James Joyce did a terrible thing for a whole generation of writers when he put that tape recorder inside the skull of Leopold Bloom. James Patrick Donleavy, a Dublin-educated New York novelist, ran off a lively spool or two in a novel called The Ginger Man, a picaresque tale of low life and high philosophy in Dublin's slums. He has now reverted to tape in a second novel, this one called A Singular Man, whose hero, equipped with the Joyce instant-playback brain, goes all over the Blooming place in Manhattan.
Donleavy is a serious man engaged in trying to extract real rabbits (frequently in the very act of breeding) from his trick hats. But Donleavy is also a real entertainer; unhampered by the calculations that make realistic novels merely realistic, he has shamelessly compounded a freudulent fantasy.
Trembling Rich. George Smith is the unlikely name of his daydream figure. Smith is such a man as Manhattan's subway millions have dreamed of being. With nothing but a pad and pencil in Room 604 of a building in Owl Street, somewhere downtown, he makes uncounted millions, and the market shudders at his whim. Like sable-jowled Novelist Donleavy himself, he is dark, saturnine, aloof from human contact. The rich tremble before him; only a few poor whom he selects to honor know his great heart. Contemptuous of woman when lured into sex he is more potent than the Grand Turk. He commanded a regiment in a foreign army.
The Smith a mighty man is he. But what is he doing in a modern novel? This is in fact a Gothic novel cropping up after a lapse in taste of a century or so, and Donleavy's Smith is the once familiar Byronic hero, the diabolically fascinating doomed aristocrat.
Like its original, the modern Gothic novel is prone to interest in tombs, graveyards, menacing strangers, cryptic portents, castles and ghosts. These are all present in A Singular Man, cleverly transposed into the idiom of contemporary Manhattan and ancillary Fairfield County. Smith has a great marble mausoleum under construction, air-conditioned, flood-and earthquake-proof. Smith moodily lurks there from time to time. The ghosts are of the contemporary autobiographical kind—Smith's own spectral guilty memories acquired in a posh Jesuit prep school. The furies are represented by the Press. Evil is represented by the abandoned power-bitch wife whose cold heart can never be touched by the grace of love, but there are others to offer it in all its forms.
Bubbles & Wreaths. Once the reader overcomes the resentful suspicion that the fractured-telegram style of interior monologue must take less time to write than to read, he will find Smith the most lushly loony character of the year. Donleavy simply cannot help being comic even when the symbols and portents crowd thickest. The narrative interest—such as it is—centers on Smith's love for Miss Tomson, a genuinely imagined dream figure of sexual grace who will never become a member of the wedding. She dies, of course, and is buried at sea. Darkly Byronic to the last, Smith glowers at the sunset. "Bubbles and wreaths are left. But maybe you'd like to know that at night seals sing. They come up out of the water with their big sad eyes."
They don't really, Smith. They sort of make bubbling, burbling noises, like someone choking with laughter.