J. P. Donleavy Essay - Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) (Vol. 6)

Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) (Vol. 6)

Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) 1926–

Donleavy, a novelist, short story writer, and playwright, was born in New York City and has been an Irish citizen since 1967. Critics still believe that The Ginger Man, his first novel, is his best work and that his subsequent novels are less successful approaches to the same theme. Sebastian Dangerfield, the Ginger Man, has been called "a major comic creation" and he is described by Donleavy in a "unique prose voice." It is this flexible voice—and the narrative device of having Dangerfield speak of his actions in the third person and his thoughts in the first, thus becoming both observer and observed—that have distinguished Donleavy amongst contemporary writers. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[The Ginger Man] is an extraordinary picture of a demonic personality drawn with huge, sloshing but cunningly deliberate brushstrokes. The wild ginger man … is on the nihilist lunatic fringe. Yet, and this is the interesting point, even he has his stultified longings for respectability, dignity and quiet orderliness of conduct…. Although his nationality is different, his social attitude is very similar to Osborne's Jimmy Porter's [in Look Back in Anger]…; the same festering class resentments are there, the same atmosphere of the 1917 Red troops making the aristocrats scrub out lavatories before shooting them in the back of the skull. (p. 74)

Despite its battering-ram force and virtuoso writing The Ginger Man is less a genuine cry of dissentience than a bit of swank—a contribution, you suspect, to a cult. (p. 75)

Kenneth Allsop, in his The Angry Decade: A Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the Nineteen-Fifties (© copyright by Kenneth Allsop 1958), Peter Owen, 1958.

[At] the end of the fifties, our professors lectured to us about anti-heroes—buzz-buzz—and outside our readings lists we fetched up with the rogue of our dreams, the Ginger Man himself, name of Sebastian Dangerfield….

The Ginger Man made his presence felt—at least where I hung out—immediately and theatrically. Sebastian Dangerfield is an American expatriate living in Dublin on the teat of the G.I. Bill. Strong drink and easy women are his solace in a damp, drab, mean-spirited world. His contempt for soap and clean linen is invincible. He wants money, but will not labor for it, preferring rather to "sail dream boats." He brings the pompous low, pays no debts, confounds the slow-witted with his fast talk.

He was our man….

"A Singular Man," [Donleavy's] second novel, shows such a wealthy man, powerful, lonely, and divorced from grubby enterprise, as Sebastian Dangerfield dreamt of becoming. Because his origins and intentions are banked in mystery, George Smith invites the suspicion that he is an allegorical figure, what the semiliterate like to call a "modern Everyman." Donleavy's next performance, "The Saddest Summer of Samuel S," abandons George Smith's high-rolling New York for the mysterious Samuel's mean, cold, impoverished Vienna, and the short novel has gritty, manly virtues. "The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B," a soap opera about a poor little rich boy, returns in part to Dublin and Trinity College, to show how Sebastian Dangerfield would have done his time there had he had a full purse.

Now, it is jarring to behave disloyally to my youth, to be a traitor to my taste, but the plain fact is that Donleavy hasn't traveled well into this reader's early middle age. With each book he has come to seem less of a writer and more of a gatemouth, talking like a barber, doubling back on his own anecdotes and set-pieces….

[The ending of "The Onion Eaters"] makes us notice about the ending of "The Ginger Man" what we happily overlooked before, that the words make pretty nonsense. In fact, the whole of "The Onion Eaters" is an exercise in vaudeville and slapstick by which nonsense is elevated to the level of a ruling esthetic principle. (p. 7)

"The Onion Eaters" has no plot, in the sense of an intelligent arrangement of circumstances, or even in the sense of a metaphorical model of life's confusions. Instead hi-jinks (drunken banquet guests attempting to eat the fruit of tapestries) pass for action and soap opera sentiments ("Please dear God stop us from being incurable. Just wrap us up in warmth and friendship. Make us more remembered than forgotten.") disguise themselves as High Seriousness.

Like Turkish taxicabs that somehow keep running because their drivers cannibalize one another's cars for odd bits and pieces, Donleavy's novels are best understood as collections of spare parts left over from previous performances. The master inventory includes a long list of Dublin street-names, Atlantic seascapes, fancy weather reports. For the rich: elegant props and costumes: in novel after novel the same rough tweeds, soft leather, pewter and long, dark automobiles. Dizzy Darling's enormous dog, Goliath, who was killed off in "A Singular Man," gets another life (waste not, want not) in "The Onion Eaters," where he is given to say woof-woof and bow-wow inside inverted commas. Like the Ginger Man and George Smith, by all means let C. C. C. Clementine [the protagonist] receive menacing letters, lawyers with funny names (Bottomless Diddle Blameworthy and Dawn: Donleavy's stubborn investment in the bankrupt juvenilia of alliteration is remarkable. In life, such sedulous loyalty is often evidence of good character. In art, it is a symptom of arrested imagination and wayward taste).

For all this, give Donleavy his due. His toys often please—and his gags are often well told…. Those critics who have so loudly and ludicrously sung his praises, who have compared him seriously with Joyce and Beckett, have done him no true justice. (pp. 7-10)

He is an Irish tenor who sets his blarney to short songs that are sometimes as soft as velvet or good stout, sometimes plangent, elliptical and coarse. Because his program doesn't vary enough, we know his reprises and punch lines before we hear them. So we tire of him, and seek the company of more serious men. But by and by we forget his faults, and take up with him again, because he makes time pass, like the bite in his fictions, in digestible bites.

Sometimes he transcends himself. During moments of "The Ginger Man" and "The Saddest Summer of Samuel S" he showed a genius for ugliness, for the lines of tatty furniture, for the sensation of sour breath, of lying between dirty sheets in a cold bed-sitter without a shilling for the gas meter. He has a nice way with minor characters, and with women. Jeffrey Macfugger, C.C.C.C.'s neighbor in "The Onion Eaters" is a deft caricature of a squire's earthbound pleasures and vices. He should make you laugh, if you have the patience to pick your way through the awful thick stuff that surrounds him. Even "The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B"—Donleavy at his tear-jerking wet worst—has a couple of wonderful things in it: a mano a mano between a prep-school master and the implacable Beefy, and a well-wrought love scene between the adolescent hero and his governess that raises the reader's temperature nicely.

He has winning virtues: he entertains, he sings, he sometimes throws his voice to make it sound like Dylan Thomas's. But he is not to be confused any longer with Sterne or Joyce or Beckett, those Irish talkers who have committed, as Donleavy has not, art. (p. 10)

Geoffrey Wolff, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1971.

J. P. Donleavy is the author of an esteemed novel, The Ginger Man, which recounts the bizarre and bawdy adventures of a young American in Ireland and is distinguished by an exuberance and comic inventiveness that are quite out of the ordinary…. To say that I was disappointed [by his first play, Fairy Tales of New York] is to be milder than milk; I was left wondering what calamity this was, what strange process of denaturing and shrinkage had come over the imagination responsible for The Ginger Man's originality and gusto.

To learn … that the central character was named Cornelius Christian sounded a minatory note. But with a rush the full-scale disaster was upon us; trapped by anticipation and incredulity we were never able to break loose from the dismal sequence of inorganically related episodes that took this allegorical figure through the stages of his education in the perversions and inhumanities of the metropolis. Four scenes after a prologue, one flat and strained, another impossibly chaotic, a third entirely clichéd and only one making an approach to freshness and coherent vision although failing to attain them—such was Donleavy's Fairy Tales. (pp. 238-39)

I assure you that I have racked my memory for anything I might have missed, any symbolic levels or epiphanies of beauty, and have not found any…. [It] was just its language, seldom anything but flat, predictable or faintly modish, almost never rising to the opportunities provided by even the limited mise en scène, that insured its death even before it had its chance for immortality. (pp. 239-40)

Richard Gilman, "Novelists in the Theatre" (1963), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 238-41.

There are any number of ways to fail in the theatre, but the central one is not to have life. Most of the time there is no problem of recognition; we know what a corpse looks like. But a play like The Ginger Man is a much more difficult business. A simulacrum of robust existence, a trap without teeth, a promise without fulfillment and a daunted act which is perpetually throwing out hints that it is about to burst into bravery, the play can never be wholly resisted nor fully received. To be kept on the hook in this way is what one finally resents about The Ginger Man, after having made, God knows, every effort to jump up in the boat.

What is especially surprising about the play is that its author should have been so incapable of seeing where its true life and potency might have been obtained. For J. P. Donleavy has adapted his own novel, that lusty, lyrical, extraordinarily funny and vision-inducing book, and thrown it nearly away. It is possible that for an onlooker who has not read the book the events on stage will seem lively, wry and revelatory; but this is to be more starved for authenticity and pleasure than even our long dismal search for excitement in the theatre would seem to warrant. No, the play doesn't fail only when it is measured against the novel, but as an independent work of dramatic imagination. (p. 245)

Donleavy's book is a fable of the self, particularly the self of appetite and corporeality, lusting for fruition against the world of fact, of duty, order, claims, responsibilities and imposed expectations, the world of civilization in its role as oppressor and breaker of the individual will. Freud wrote a gloomy book on this subject, but Donleavy's is a comic song. Here the self is conceived of as pleasure-seeker, instinctual, full of wayward music and untrammeled possibility, its demands pitched in the teeth of necessity. That is exactly the novel's special grace and force, that necessity is daringly treated the way the imagination, in one of its perennial activities, has to treat it—as the direst enemy there is.

For Sebastian Dangerfield, Donleavy's American who lives in Dublin and battles the Irish for their poetry and poverty, their ugliness, unaccepted beauty and deflected instincts, existence is a strategic problem: how to preserve the green island of the self from the waves of necessity that are always lapping higher on its shores. He will let nothing hold him, neither marriage, fatherhood, vocation or friendship, although every claim is rooted in his flesh. He is the comic and lyrical counterpart of John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, and like that fugitive from necessity and responsible choice he runs a course beyond morality and judgment, tracing one arc of the imagination in its desire to establish a counterforce to fact.

He is childish, brawling, spontaneous, a liar of heroic proportions, an irresistible lover, an innocent yet the most cunning of tacticians, a dreamer who cannot distinguish the streets of his dream from real thoroughfares. (pp. 245-46)

Why Donleavy should have turned this splendid creation into the figure we encounter on the stage is a mystery and a reinforcement of our fears that there is something about the stage today that inhibits even the boldest talents. For the Dangerfield of the play is small, winsome, charming, sly, tired and fragile, an eccentric instead of an inimitable, and a manipulator instead of a power. And his story is told domestically between walls, not merely the physical walls of the two tiny interiors in which the action takes place (the novel ranges all over Dublin in the manner of Ulysses and with a good deal of its mock-epic vivacity) but the walls of a basically naturalistic form, a circumscribed set of encounters which have the effect of putting us in the presence of a character, an oddball, but not an essential truth. Being traditional in this way enables Donleavy to distill from his bizarre material an odd charm, a hint of poetry, a relief from earnestness and a slight fever of expectation, but not a vision or the kind of music he must surely have wanted to hear played. (pp. 246-47)

One of our most respected critics has written about The Ginger Man that it should not be faulted because it fails to obey some of the chief canons of the popular drama, because, that is, it has no steadily building action and no clear denouement. Of course it should not be attacked for lacking these things: they are what we have been trying to get past in all our experiments and plunges. But that is just it; The Ginger Man doesn't experiment and doesn't plunge, it simply sits on the edge, its back turned to some of the major theatrical conventions and its face to a dramatic possibility it isn't willing to enter. (pp. 247-48)

Richard Gilman, "Ginger Without Bite" (1964), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 245-48.

[A Fairy Tale of New York, a] sprawling, anecdotal epic, is vintage Donleavy, in more senses than one. A few of the tall stories, now nestling happily among even taller ones, were written ages ago (as a play, and various short pieces) and have waited a long time for Donleavy to return with his hero Cornelius Christian…. Like all J. P. Donleavy's awful heroes, Mr. Christian is one of nature's gentlemen, a compound of curiosity, greed, and unassailable innocence with nothing to offer, as he says, but himself. A prince disguised as a nobody in true fairy-tale style, his shabby hesitant exterior hides a devastating wit and muscles like steel. He plays the city's vicious games expertly….

Few writers know how to enjoy verbal promiscuity like Mr. Donleavy, and his pleasure in his own performance is infectious. Words are really used when he spits them out, no matter who they belonged to before. Here the material spreads out untidily all over the place—sometimes Christian is just an excuse to hang the anecdotes on—but the high pressure of the writing holds things together. It is largely because of the confidence of the style, too, that you come out of the welter of failure and misery feeling good—nastiness is inevitably laced with hilarity and sentiment in his telling it….

The limits of the actual make this a sadder, but a better book than the last Donleavy epic, The Onion Eaters. There the grotesque Irish Gothic proliferated without much resistance from outside. In A Fairy Tale of New York the grotesques don't have to be entirely invented; reality supplies them. And in a way, too, New York explains Donleavy, supplies the context that makes sense of his special brand of escapism. The shows of bravado, the fine collapse and the triumphant defeats are displayed to advantage against the city's insensate bulk. This is, quintessentially, his style—to repay the gratuitious viciousness of experience with an equally gratuitous whimsy, a confidence and self-delight conjured out of thin air.

"Dreaming of City Lights," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 7, 1973, p. 1018.

Although The Ginger Man presents a man whose heart is "twisted with dying"…, the mode of the novel is comic. Much of the action is slapstick, and the limited humanity of the characters makes them satiric objects or grotesque jokes, but most of the comedy in the novel is verbal. Dangerfield continually outwits and outtalks his "enemies" and uses his irony to pretend to himself that death is inescapable and that he has "dignity." The reader is invited to laugh at some of Dangerfield's more innocent foibles and scrapes, but most often Donleavy sets up an alliance between his hero-narrator and the reader to laugh at respectability, morality, and weakness. It is a Dionysian laugh, but when death erupts into Dangerfield's consciousness, laughter often falters as a protective device. We are left with the same horror Dangerfield feels, a horror unmediated by religious belief, personal relationships, or the now mirthless laugh. We are like the gingerbread boy whose manic, taunting laugh has ended in the wolf's throat. Donleavy's achievement is thus primarily rhetorical. Through his shifting first- to third-person stream of consciousness, time-shattered syntax, and epitaphic rimes, he reverses our ordinary criteria of judgment and has us rejoice at Sebastian Dangerfield's continual reversal of others' expectations. Moral issues are reduced by the more basic question of life and death, and only an affirmation of vitality at any cost saves the novel from complete nihilism.

Donleavy's other novels also begin with the hero's awareness of death and the gap between self and the world such awareness causes; a clear progress is made, however, from the manic and comic desperation of The Ginger Man to the pathetic and sentimental resignation of The Onion Eaters. A Singular Man takes a protagonist very like Dangerfield into a paranoid separation from life and death symbolized both by his fixation on his mausoleum and the novel's title. The heroes of The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, and The Onion Eaters all attempt to overcome their fear of their own death or their sadness about the death of others through love, but Donleavy too often sentimentalizes their relations by giving them an adolescent quality. The vitalistic technique of The Ginger Man slides in later novels toward more unified action, descriptions of setting, static consciousness, cliche, and even silence. The relative failure of Donleavy's later novels is instructive. With The Ginger Man he had explored a variety of ways to cope with death and found them ultimately wanting. Forced into seeking some resolution to his characters' victimization by their own consciousness, Donleavy turned away from the tension comedy creates to heterosexual love but (modifying Leslie Fiedler's thesis) found difficulty writing persuasively about love because of the effects of death. Only by diminishing death's effect and reducing his heroes' stature, as he does in The Beastly Beatitudes, does Donleavy make the man-woman relation more meaningful than the male alliance he treats in most of his fiction. Death, then, causes the bleakness of the characters' lives in Donleavy's fiction and also, after A Singular Man, reduces the author's ability to produce a fiction which avoids sentimentality—an illustration that death forces men, as characters in and creators of fiction, into pitiful weaknesses and sad resignation. (pp. 12-14)

Thomas LeClair, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975.

J. P. Donleavy's lecherous, rebelliously heroic anti-heroes, from Sebastian Dangerfield, the Ginger Man, to Samuel S to Balthazar B, were total misfits. Their world was more banana peel than oyster. But it has been twenty years since "The Ginger Man" appeared, and Donleavy, now a graybeard of 49, has learned a thing or two more about a world that seems to be booby-trapped and persists in taking cheap shots. For readers consumed with angst and copelessness, ["The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners"] will prove as valuable as a kingsize vial of Valium.

A forerunner of the black humorists who came of rage in the 1960s, Donleavy is a comic who tosses cream pies with cement filling. Like Mel Brooks, he knows that bad taste is merely a joke that doesn't get a laugh. And like Brooks, Donleavy's demonic humor is utterly democratic, thrusting the needle into everyone…. (p. 73)

Much of the book's craziness results from the odd juxtaposition of Donleavy's spoofing of the high Victorian style with comedy that is broad, low and concerned mainly with bathroom and bedroom…. What Donleavy does with … genteel loutishness is express his own loathing for contemporary society in a parody of the classic manual of etiquette. He thus reveals himself—if it needed revealing—as the Ginger Man behind all those Ginger Men in his pungent, disaffected novels. (p. 74)

Arthur Cooper, "Ginger Snaps," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1975, pp. 73-4.

If the many readers of The Ginger Man, James Patrick Donleavy's first and best novel, can somehow imagine its savagely baleful young anti-hero Sebastian Dangerfield being resurrected a quarter of a century afterward and sitting down to compose an advice book for late 20th century man, they should have a rough idea of The Unexpurgated Code. It might well be subtitled I'm Not O.K., You're Not O.K. A collection of bilious and often funny rules for living, the book qualifies as philosophy according to Donleavy's own definition: thoughts generated while confronting "wind, flood, volcanoes, earthquake, fire and lightning and the people who wouldn't be human if they weren't out to get you." (pp. 77-8)

There is more than a touch of stately grandiloquence to the Donleavy prose, with its Latinate preferences and its "My-dear-sir!" bursts of lace-cuff-shooting mock elegance. But what the cadenced prose does is to set up the reader for the moment when Donleavy belches out his violent, scurrilous message: life, taken all in all, is obscene—the ultimate four-letter word….

But between the lines, Donleavy's diatribes manage to say more. In passing fancies he sees visions of grace, chivalry and order. Lords sit in their castles while peasants roam the meadow (with a moat between them). Butlers who know their place well serve perfectly prepared drinks to deserving pukka-sahib colonels. At such tenderly sardonic moments, Donleavy seems to reveal himself as an inverted romantic, profoundly sad beneath his disguise because he and the world are no better than they happen to be. (p. 78)

Melvin Maddocks, "Do Unto Others," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), September 22, 1975, pp. 77-8.