and Carousing in Donleavy's New York"
by Paul DI Filippo
Forty years after
the U.S. publication of his rueful face, The
Ginger Man, JP Donleavy delivers a similar performance with Wrong
Information Is Being Given Out At Princeton. (The title, on first
glance awkward and off-putting, proves in the end a potent symbol of the
existential unease at the book's heart.)
Happily, the author's patented Amerihibernian roguish spiel -- choppy yet fluid, sometimes syntactically jarring, alternately coarse and elegant, shifting whimsically from first person to third -- rings as strong as ever. Preparatory to diving into the new book, readers might do well to consider Donleavy's previous two.
The History Of The Ginger Man (1994) offered to any confirmed Donleavy fan a wealth of information and insight into the writer and his work, as well as a trove of hilariously heartbreaking anecdotes. Although centered on the composition and legal travails of Donleavy's first novel, the memoir also functioned as a partial autobiography, detailing Donleavy's childhood in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, his Ireland and Paris years and his monetary and artist trials and triumphs.
"History" seemed a coda to Donleavy's career to date, and his next fiction struck out into new precincts. The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms, a novella from 1995, focused not on one of Donleavy's usual sensitive young ruffians but instead on a middle-aged female character, Jocelyn Guenevere Marchantiere Jones, a cast-off first wife struggling with our harshly mercenary times.
Although "Wrong Information..." is billed as the second in a series and bears the same subtitle as "The Lady..." -- The Chronicle of One Of The Strangest Stories Ever To Be Rumored About Around New York," -- the novel exhibits no overt connection to its predecessor, save for one character's sharing of Jocelyn's distinctive middle names. Set some 50 years earlier in postwar New York, the new book evokes the lost milieu of Donleavy's own youth in rich detail (except for a couple of anachronisms, such as references to cryogenics and the cometary theory of dinosaur extinction).
Narrated in the first person by one Alfonso Stephen O'Kelly'O, "Wrong Information..." returns forcefully to Donleavy's two great themes: the struggle to assert one's individuality in the face of societal indifference and repression, and the quest for spiritual meaning in the midst of a deracinated culture.
It is the combination of these two themes that makes Donleavy simultaneously Victorian and modern. His take on the former would be familiar to such expert snob-dissectors as Thackeray and Trollope, whereas the nagging sense of despair permeating even Donleavy's lightest moments renders him cousin to Beckett and Sartre.
O'Kelly'O hails from a rough-and-tumble family of Bronx-dwelling bootleggers but harbors a poetic soul they cannot fathom. A young veteran of World War II, he's used the GI Bill to educate himself at home and abroad for the role he deems himself most fitted -- symphonic composer.
Stephen, now resident on the edges of New York City's Chinatown in impoverished circumstances, finds little worldly acceptance for his talents. Meeting and falling for a beautiful yet troubled dancer, Sylvia Witherspoon Triumphington, Stephen suspects that his prospects might be brightening because Sylvia's adopted family is rich.
But after the marriage, Sylvia's parents cut off her allowance, and matters plunge from bad to worse. Sylvia's obsessive quest for her birth mother and her disdain for Stephen's chosen career intersect with Stephen's roving eye (Drusilla, Sylvia's adoptive mother, becomes one -- of his romantic conquests) and with his ne'er-do-well friends to produce confusion and calamity.
Typical of Donleavy's picaresque books, "Wrong Information..." is not heavily plotted, rather being a sequence of set pieces and ruminations that form a constellation of woe and hilarity, insults and revenge. Sidesplitting scenes, such as Stephen's unfortunate bathroom contretemps at the Triumphington mansion (are the Farrelly brothers Donleavy fans?), alternate with quieter moments, as when Stephen parses his love-hate affair with America.
At the core of the book is an incident that encapsulates Stephen's existential dilemma. While wandering through the Port Authority bus station, Stephen receives from a bum the enigmatic statement that forms the novel's title. Intrigued by the aptness of this pronouncement, Stephen offers it in turn to a stranger, a woman who approaches him in some distress.
Further upset by Stephen's innocent if insensitive act, the woman takes a few steps away and commits public suicide with a bullet to the head. Her death in the face of "wrong information" from the home of Einstein haunts the remainder of the novel, coloring even Stephen's eventual surprise rescue from beneath the wheels of fate.
Although filled with smile-inducing apothegms -- "Nobody wastes time in this city hiring you at a low salary if you're really good at something," -- "Wrong Information..." is a melancholy book.
Donleavy's usual troupe of clowns, con men, hedonists and amorous women around his protagonist is much reduced. The ghosts of such American artist-martyrs as Melville and Stephen Foster hover above Donleavy's unfriendly New York streets.
The book's nostalgic 1940s ambiance, distinct from the author's typical ultra-modernity, seems a capitulation to Philip Roth's famous dictum that the everyday absurdities of modern life have rendered satire impotent.
Still, Stephen's tale is viscerally affecting, a truthful catalog of suffering and exaltation rendered as only Donleavy can. The reader will find no misinformation here.
- Paul DI Filippo, 1999
To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.