Sebastian Dangerfield thoroughly dominates the novel; every experience, every detail of daily life in Dublin, is filtered through his corrupt sensibility. Sebastian is a walking contradiction: He professes to love all things Irish but characterizes the country as “this dreary stage of church-bound hopelessness.” He remains so completely American as to claim to be part Mohawk, yet he can love America only when he is not there. He wants affection from his wife and mistresses but returns little. He is totally blind to the causes of his misfortune: “My problems come with me wherever I go, even on detours.” His problems must follow since he and they are one. Sebastian is the most complete rogue in any American picaresque novel, but he is not repugnant. He is a larger-than-life comic creation full of ironic self-pity: “I came down the stairs with my usual innocence and pain.” The irony is heightened because Sebastian is aware that he is both the teller of this tale and its hero, and he frequently steps back to observe himself in action. When he boasts, “I even worked once,” or explains, “If Marion wants to make the barbarous accusation that I took the milk money, it’s just as well I took it,” Sebastian comes closer to self-mockery than he does to self-justification. He cannot be a villain since he is too much the victim: “I may be just a bit younger than Christ when they tacked him up but they’ve had me outstretched a few times already.” Such...
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Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield
Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, a former American soldier attending Trinity College law school after World War II. He is a twenty-seven-year-old who is less concerned with academic pursuits than with drinking, brawling, wenching, and thieving his way through Dublin. He assumes a series of personae in hopes of escaping detection and entrapment. Although he longs for wealth and respectability, his chaotic life ensures poverty. Just as a fortune seems within his grasp after his father’s death, Dangerfield learns that the will stipulates holding his inheritance in a trust for twenty years.
Marion Dangerfield, Dangerfield’s disenchanted British wife. Tall and slender, with long, blond hair, she frequently quarrels with her husband over his dissolute ways. Although she leaves him repeatedly, they always reunite, until finally she prevails on his father to send her money. She then escapes to her parents in Scotland.
Kenneth O’Keefe, a former Harvard student who is Dangerfield’s best friend. Twenty-seven years old and destitute, O’Keefe is frustrated by his poverty and sexual privation. He leaves for France with great expectations, later returns to Dublin, and then embarks for the United States. His many humorous letters of defeat and travail punctuate the narrative.
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Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield is a brilliantly realized character, urbane, witty, evidently handsome, and resourceful. He is also truly demoniac: the consummate rogue, confidence man, and iconoclast. Behind his flair and verve, however, lie a desperate nihilism and a compelling sense of futility which are occasionally expressed in self-destructive violence. This rootless Don Juan, this American abroad, sees himself as an undeserving outsider, denied access to the social status he desires (his favorite word is “dignity”). Thus, his infantile, frustrated search for unearned security finds its expression in a bawdy mockery of his every human contact and in fantasies of power and vengeance verging on the mythic.
Dangerfield is based on an actual person: Gainor Crist, an alcoholic bohemian from Dayton, Ohio, who was a contemporary of Donleavy at Trinity College. Some of the minor characters are based on native Dubliners of the same era, including playwright and author Brendan Behan.
Both Dangerfield and O’Keefe are versions of the Irish-American type, drawn into a love-hate relationship with both cultures. If Dangerfield is an alazon from classical comedy, O’Keefe derives from the comedy of humors, driven by two prevailing forces: the search for sex and a perverse attachment to Ireland. Marion is a stereotypical Englishwoman, with her lexicon of English and prejudices against the Irish and the lower orders.
The minor characters are stereotyped in the manner of Dangerfield’s perception: the Trinity College Anglo-Saxon snobs, the servile shopkeepers who give them credit, the genteel Protestant old ladies, the materialistic parish priests, and the lonely women searching for love. The novel is more original in its portrayal of MacDoon, Clocklan, Mary, and Malarkey, all living outside Eamon, De Valera’s pious, official Catholic Ireland. These denizens of Dublin’s Catacombs form a counterculture which transforms the familiar ethos of the Irish pub into a mythical underworld of Celtic abandon.