Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) 1926–
American-born novelist, playwright, and short story writer, Donleavy is best known for The Ginger Man. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
J. P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man … is undramatic. badly paced, and very uneven indeed, with more weak passages than it can comfortably assimilate, but it is also an extremely funny novel, and its vitality is more than merely rhetorical. In a furiously exuberant prose style that suggests wild horses let loose, Donleavy lashes about with abandon at everything in sight, only to find that he has been flailing the empty air, so utterly has the once solid structure of middle-class respectability disintegrated from lack of any conviction to prop it up…. The Ginger Man is fundamentally a book without hope … and it reflects … I think, the true spiritual contours of this period. It is a response not to the death of traditional values. not to the dislocations caused by industrialism and technology—there are no memories of an older, more settled way of life here—but precisely to the final collapse of the bourgeois era, a book that comes out of a moment in history when the old world has died and the new one about to be born may never struggle its way out of the womb.
Norman Podhoretz, "The New Nihilism and the Novel" (1958), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 159-78.
Comparisons have been shyly made between Donleavy, James Joyce, and Henry Miller, calling attention to the roguish Dublin setting of The Ginger Man, its experiments with the stream of consciousness, and its ribald, off-beat poetry. Like Samuel Beckett, however, Donleavy really belongs to a post-Joycean world. The particular quality of nihilism exhibited in his book refers us to the postwar, existential era. Traditional values are not in the process of dying; they have ceased entirely to operate, and their stark absence leaves men to shift for themselves as best they can. Donleavy, therefore, cannot be placed in the camp of the Angry Young Men of England, whose rebellion is ultimately a social gesture; nor can he be assimilated to the Beat writers of America, whose search, at bottom, is a religious quest. Donleavy is perhaps the new expatriate American, exploring the fictional resources of a scruffy and criminal life, but finding both sides of the Atlantic equally desolate, hence uproarious. The revulsions of the expatriate in our time take the form of a metaphysical, or at least international, leer.
The world of The Ginger Man confirms the ancient bond between cruelty and humor. It is full of gusto, seething with life, but its energy may be the energy of negation, and its vitality has a nasty edge. The adjectives applied most often to it are "riotous" and "wild." But do not the same adjectives apply to chaos itself? Even the exuberance which attends the old ceremonies of food, drink, and sex appears touched by morbid desperation; even a prank may become a criminal act. In The Ginger Man, the catharsis of comedy depends on a recognition of human absurdity, the futility of all social endeavors. The primary value which the novel asserts is the value of courage, the ability to stare into the void….
The Ginger Man is neither a profound nor a happy work. The insights of its hero are elusive; his self-awareness is so entirely ironic that it permits no explicit statement of values on his part....
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In fact, one is never quite sure whether Dangerfield is a supreme humbug—so expert he is in mimicry—or a bitter, questing soul. The episodic structure of the novel, its style, rich and spontaneous but also chaotic and contrived, imply no ideas of order, only the acrid sense of life. It is as if the very spirit of comedy could only find its affirmation in a mad, nugatory snarl.
Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 194-200.
Donleavy's outsider clings to his elegance in the midst of his seediness. Kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms have a vivid presence in his books. Clothing is meticulously described. Physical existence, often painful or repulsive, can be lyrical and joyous. Like Sebastian in The Ginger Man, the hero of The Saddest Summer of Samuel S. is a down-and-outer with too much self-respect to join the world who protects himself as far as possible by his use of language. It is sometimes his one weapon for keeping a pushing mob of phonys and cheaters and dishonest know-nothings at a safe distance. Typically, the wit is rueful and pleasantly hard, the humor grotesque and childish. The Donleavy hero is young (but ages along with the author), has some kind of irregular academic background from a good school, has shocked his elders and is still in revolt against them, is both victim and aggressor.
John Rees Moore, "J. P. Donleavy's Season of Discontent," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1967, pp. 95-9.
The continuity of character apparent in Donleavy's prose style clearly reflects the changing state of his character. In The Ginger Man Donleavy strung sentences together without punctuation; his prose was excited and breathless, and fragments fluttered among the run-on sentences like the visible nervous twitches on an already high-strung body. As one reads he can notice, within The Ginger Man, Donleavy's increasing reliance upon the sentence fragment to indicate Sebastian's descent into George Smith's world, a world only to be described by a hypernervous, fragmented prose, an equivalent of a mind in shock. In A Singular Man, Donleavy created just that type of line; words were strung out like rubber bands, each trying, under tremendous tension, to recapture the center of George Smith's mind, a mind which nervously flung them out. In The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, the prose is firm—mausoleum-like. Donleavy uses few fragments here. The prose reflects the character and also signals the close of him; it buries him before Donleavy does.
Dean Cohen, "The Evolution of Donleavy's Hero," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 3, 1971, pp. 95-109.
Donleavy's fictions are not … simply case histories of the terminal self. They are about the classical rogue as well as the modern victim, twentieth-century Tom Joneses as well as funny Joseph K.'s, man inside yet outside of society in Dublin, New York, and Vienna. The novels range from variations of the humorous—slapstick, scatological, sardonic—to the sentimental in an idiosyncratic style that conveys the pressure of time on language. But such features of Donleavy's work are finally extensions of and returns to death, the test of man's mettle in landscapes made pale by death's presence….
Beastly Beatitudes is … the culmination of a development that began with A Singular Man. By retreating from extremity forced by his characters' intense awareness of death to a position illustrated by "Something born nudges you gently to do and die"…, Donleavy widens the fictional realms he can explore …, but sacrifices the intensity that would make the exploration interesting. This is not to imply that death's presence in extreme form is a requisite of good fiction, but simply that the slackness of technique in Beastly Beatitudes seems to stem from Donleavy's new approach to death, the element that gave The Ginger Man its vigor and tension. In A Singular Man and The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, Donleavy was in the process of discovering a value—heterosexual love—that would stand against death, but he realizes this value in Beastly Beatitudes only by sentimentalizing the relationship of man to time and death. He dilutes death, only to water down love into a kind of barely post-adolescent lyricism. Incapable of a mature understanding of death, Donleavy's hero fails to persuade us that his love is mature or, more important, convincing. Donleavy attempts to retain the balance between value and death as denier of value by shifting his presentation of death from consciousness to external event, but Balthazar's reactions are all too usual. The effect is one of bathetic deflation leaving the collapsed skin of sentiment to cover the bones of an ordinary Bildungsroman plot. The reader of Donleavy's other novels searches for the irony that would turn against this sentiment and restore the vision of basic man—ginger man—but finds only a gentle humor that nibbles at the edges of sentiment.
Thomas LeClair, "A Case of Death: The Fiction of J. P. Donleavy," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 329-44.