Is the Ginger Man?"
by Norm Fruchter
From The Ginger Man to Fairy Tales of New York, J. P. Donleavy has traced a wily, subterranean trail from joy to ambivalence, from sensual and sensuous pleasure to partial withdrawal, from anarchy to compromise. Donleavy’s first book, published in 1958, announced a rare, rich, disciplined perception, a strict yet supple prose style, fluid with echoes of Yeats, Marvell, Donne, even Chaucer. Donleavy chose the hardest of all narrative forms—the first person present, and forged as his narrative persona perhaps the only recent fictional hero we can fully accept, Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, the ginger man.
At the centre of Sebastian’s life are the joys he knows and feels and cares totally for and will never compromise: the joy of woman’s flesh, the joy of love-making, the joy of liquor, the joy of friendship with the very few people who have not betrayed him. Around this core cluster Sebastian’s secondary pleasures; fine clothes, good homes and furnishings, sleek cars, people, new mornings in fresh streets, fog, the feel and smell and taste and touch of almost anything. Donleavy’s book is the painful, hilarious odyssey of a man completely in harmony with his senses and his feelings, trying to keep both whole and faithful to himself in our fragmenting world.
A cold list of Sebastian’s actions would qualify him as bastard in anybody’s book. He swindles a shopkeeper in the opening chapter, goes on to beat his wife, maltreat his kid, cheat countless shopkeepers and publicans, ruin a rented house after pawning all the movable furnishings, start riots in pubs, steal a bicycle, sleep with at least six women, and beat the one he (possibly) loves. No question of remorse, misguided actions, temporary madness. Sebastian is cold-bloodedly ruthless; his fights are arbitrary but his seduction of his thirty-four year old Catholic boarder, Miss Lily Frost, is so minutely calculated that even Sebastian feels a twinge of pity as her hands tighten on his wrist, pulling him up and into her bed.
“To touch Miss Frost
seems safe and sad. Because I guess I pull her into my own pit.”
Sebastian cares about himself, and the few people who care about themselves with similar strength and devotion, so that nothing like tact or consideration or trust or responsibility interferes. He permits no concessions to any morality and has learned to imprison the secret name of the God that rules our lives—Guilt. So he is free. What limits him is no inner stricture of will or doctrine, no fear or inhibition, but only the boundary defining prohibitions of the outside world. Not Arthur Seaton’s outside world, the jungle where “they” are always out to get you, and cunning, the subversion of “their” machinery so that it works for you, means a possible salvation—in Dangerfield’s world “they” are not the aristocracy (to which he spiritually belongs), not the bosses, the managers, the executives, the officials. “They” are the little people, landlords and publicans and laundry-girls and old-age pensioners and neighbours who keep watch behind the curtains, and in Dangerfield’s canon they stand convicted of the only mortal sin—meanness of spirit. How can a man with only joy in his heart live inside the meanness of this world? This is Dangerfield’s question, and the pages of The Ginger Man record his answer; through pain, sadness, anger and fear, through constant exercise of wit, cunning, and agile feet, through outrageous lies and cheats and monstrous cruelty.
The Complete Aristocrat
Sebastian is no picaresque
hero, no man of the people, no working-class hero bursting with vitality,
rampaging through a debilitated, enervated upper-class world, inspiring warmth
and desire through his earthy lustiness. Sebastian is a total aristocrat.
Everyone has his place, the lower orders must be kept down. His looks and
bearing reinforce his self-image; many of his swindles work because he carries the hauteur off so well. All men are neither equal nor brothers nor anything else for Sebastian; his quarrel is not with the world but with the system of apportionment that left him penniless and scrabbling.
But not despairing. Never despairing. Dangerfield comes close, but even in his lowest moments, a slice of humorous perception, the play of his predicament or the look on his adversary’s face or the tonal quality of the paving-stones, comes filtering up through his senses, and we know the ginger man is still whole. Sebastian stakes himself on his style, and Donleavy stakes the book on his. To make Sebastian live in narrative is hard enough, but to create his own voice as narrator, and to solve the problem of narration as well, is formidable. Donleavy creates a stylised stream of consciousness for Sebastian, a terse yet packed lyrical reverie which communicates his vibrant sensual, associative, emotional tangle. The action moves forward through switches into the third person; Sebastian narrates as if he were seeing himself acting, a play-by-play with the quarterback broadcasting. The plot is episodic, moves forward simply in time, with occasional flashbacks through Sebastian’s memory. There is no development of character and no investigation of issue, since Sebastian does not change, and there are no issues at stake. We leave The Ginger Man well-fed, well-dressed, and well-loved in London, surrounded by friends who will see him right, twenty years to go before his father’s will grants him six thousand dollars a year for the rest of his life.
From the book of The Ginger Man to the play of The Ginger Man, which appeared briefly in London in the early winter of 1959, was a very short jump. As far as I can remember, Donleavy adapted one of the Kenneth O’Keefe episodes and Miss Frost’s seduction for staging. A memory of Marion, Sebastian’s wife, also lingers; perhaps she figured in the opening scenes. The distance occurs between Donleavy’s first and second play. Fairy Tales of New York.
The ginger man is almost gone. Only faint traces remain. Cornelius Christian is also aristocratic in manner and bearing. Constant reference is made to his looks, his clothes, his vaguely English accent. (In The Ginger Man, Sebastian usually reminded us himself about the way he looked and sounded. In Fairy Tales, the other characters do the work). But where Sebastian gave, Cornelius protects and defends. It is almost as if the ginger man, having learned his lesson in Ireland and England, has come back to New York determined to lead a subterranean life, to protect the wholeness of his spirit by the ambivalence of his surface response. The world he moves through has also changed. Where Ireland and England presented primary colours and simple choices—poverty and wretchedness and squalor and drunkenness and wenching—and simple meanness of spirit, Donleavy’s fairyland New York involves us in a terrifying complexity of language and action, a world where self has been absorbed in self-image, where people are indistinguishable from their business roles, where Cornelius stands out, not by his assertion or his vitality or lustiness or simple joy, but by his refusal to define himself as anything, by his role-shirking, by his resistances.
Fairy Tales divides into four episodes: Cornelius’s arrangements for and burial of his wife Helen, who has died on board the ship taking both of them from England to America; Cornelius’s job interview with Mr. Mott, father of a friend, and Mr. How, Mr. Mott’s personnel director; a bout between Cornelius and the “admiral” of a tugboat fleet in an athletic club; and a restaurant outing with Cornelius and a childhood sweetheart. Each scene follows the same pattern; one authoritarian figure (an undertaker, a business tycoon, a tugboat boss, a headwaiter), one subservient secondary figure (the undertaker’s assistant, the personnel director, the athletic club manager, the waiter), encounter Cornelius and dominate him. Cornelius makes no protest against the syrupy sympathy of the undertaker’s ritual or the crass success-mouthings of the tycoon; he wants to bury his wife and he wants to make money. He simply refuses to respond. Each scene’s opening would be caricature if we knew where Cornelius stood, but his non-commitment forces us to evaluate the undertaker’s inhumanity, the tycoon’s materialism, the “admiral’s” illiberalism, the headwaiter’s prejudice, on our own terms, without reference to any character or given set of attitudes. The initial moments of each of the four scenes are almost static caricature, only the author’s stand and its identification in a particular character (so that we know where we are and what values are being caricatured) is missing.
But as each episode grows, the two sets of characters, inside their varied and yet similar business roles, force Cornelius to commit himself, shed his protective anonymity, oppose the business ritual and formulae.
In the burial scene, Cornelius interrupts Mr. Vine, the owner of the “Forest of The Stars” funeral parlour, cuts off Mr. Vine’s explanations of his success with, “I wish you wouldn’t talk so much about the business of it.” Mr. Vine is instantly offended. Cornelius has broken the rules of the game, allowed his private grief to transcend the ritual. “Be a sport,” Mr. Vine demands. Eventually, Cornelius apologises. We understand that the apology is no capitulation, just a way of getting Mr. Vine off Cornelius’s back. But in the same way, Cornelius’s outburst was not so much an affirmation (of the validity of his felt grief as superior to Vine’s scent and soothing music ritual) as a negative statement, a definition of a line beyond which Cornelius will not be pushed.
In the interview episode, Cornelius’s opening responses are similarly anonymous. He is not capable of intoning “ingenuity” with the fervour of Mr. Mott, he cannot create an image of the earnest young man to fit Mr. How’s employment categories. He wants to make money, but since he cannot suppress various complex personal truths (no degree, previous job as an undertaker), Mr. How loses control of the interview. All his attempts to “restructure the experience” fail to simplify Cornelius into a convenient employment bracket. But Mr. How trusts Cornelius, administers a “thought” test which Cornelius passes by producing two advertising slogans. How, impressed and excited, begs Cornelius to take a job in the firm’s ideas department. “When we see a head that makes words like that, we buy that head.” Instantly Cornelius decides he doesn’t want the job. In the succeeding turn-about, even the seats change, as How implores Cornelius. Mr. Mott interrupts, orders a command performance, and is similarly impressed. He asks about Cornelius’s past. Cornelius ignores How’s warning to suppress the unpalatable truth, reveals his previous employment and several unwholesome facts which antagonise Mr. Mott. In the following power struggle, Cornelius dominates through his refusal to fabricate; he sheds his anonymity to take a stand, but again he defines himself by refusing to mask himself rather than by stating who he is. His refusal changes the static quality of the scene, opens it to possibilities, transcends the caricature. But the possibilities do not develop. Mott (and Vine) absorbs Cornelius’s refusal, reasserts his own values (“I’m glad I was king enough” to apologise). Cornelius apologises, How restores peace and tranquility. (“There’s a place for you here” Mott intones to a grateful Cornelius).
Peace With Honour?
The third episode, in the boxing ring of an athletic club, is a puzzler. Another Cornelius, a vaguely liberal liberated sophisticate, has gained the club manager’s genial puzzlement and a tugboat boss’s ungenial enmity. The “Admiral”, all mouth and brad and sham force and pretension, is inveigled into a few rounds with Cornelius, a far better boxer; the prize at stake the admiration of a pretty manicurist. The manager sets up the bout. Cornelius is to take a knock-out for the “Admiral’s” pride and self-image, but the knock-out accidentally happens, the “Admiral” withdraws with his false image bolstered by a real occurrence. Cornelius lies unconscious—refusal, again, to contribute to the “Admiral’s” universe, either by deflating his image or falsely propping it?
The final scene is highly theatrical. Cornelius and a childhood sweetheart come to dine in an exclusive country restaurant. Cornelius’s peach shoes isolate the couple, the staff refuses to serve them. Cornelius doesn’t care, the girl does. “We’re not the best people, how can we know that what we do is right?” Cornelius leaves. The two waiters try to convince the girl that Cornelius is not worth waiting for; slowly their positional poses reveal their “real” poses, the bastard, and the nice guy. The nice guy will take her out for a drink, but will not defy the bastard and let her remain at the table. With the girl on her knees after silver, setting, cloth, table, and chair have been removed, Cornelius returns, grandly attired in top hat, cape, dress suit, and bare feet set off by jewels. The waiters resume their poses. The meal becomes a ceremony, culminating in the presentation of a foot-stool for Cornelius’s bejeweled bare feet.
A magnificent gesture. But again, a compromise. Reminiscences of e. e. cummings: “There is some shit I will not eat.” And a dilemma. If Donleavy intended Fairy Tales as satiric commentary, why does Cornelius act? His action in each episode changes the focus from an evaluation of his world to an evaluation of him. He forces us to question the limits of his toleration and the potential of his resistances; to decide that his toleration, the amount of inhumanity he is able to suffer, is fairly large, his resistances temporary and absorbable. If, however, Donleavy meant Fairy Tales to ask the same question The Ginger Man asks, what quality of life is possible in this society, where is the total warfare, the total response of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield? Can you ask about the quality of life through a hero who has almost no response? Where is all the lusty singing, the vitality, the joy of The Ginger Man? Instead of life, peace with honour. How to join in without sacrificing all of yourself—become anonymous. God’s mercy on J. P. Donleavy, as old Danger might say, Cornelius Christian is a long way from the wild ginger man.
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