J. P. Donleavy Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) (Vol. 4) - Essay

Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) 1926–

An American-born novelist, playwright, and short story writer who became an Irish citizen, Donleavy is best known for The Ginger Man, an experimental novel in a post-Joycean mode. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Compared to The Ginger Man, A Singular Man is an extremely neat presentation of the hero consenting to the trap of his society. For all of its incidental invention, however, it is a repetitive and finally rather dull book. The Ginger Man shows some of the same tendencies, but, in it, the style has not yet become mannered. The rhetoric, hovering between bathos and mockery, is suitable to Sebastian. The stylistic device—and a very clever one—which allows sudden shifts from first to third person within a paragraph suggests that Sebastian speaks as himself and then steps back to see himself, that he is always both sufferer and observer. The interplay between Sebastian's reality and his fantasies give a richness to the novel which is diluted only by the recognition that, in fact or in fancy, he is a some-what tiresome man to spend much time with. A Singular Man tries to go a step beyond The Ginger Man. George Smith's only reality is mythic. Like the hero of the Donleavy play Fairy Tales in New York, he is a fantasy figure in a fantasy setting, suggesting some satirical truths about our society. Yet, like Sebastian, he wears disguises, invents situations, plays many parts; unlike Sebastian, he never touches ground. The implications are fascinating—the relationship between the fantasies society imposes and the ones we invent to escape from it—but the book is not. Its style defeats it. It is not simply that some devices (the shift in person, the verse-like tags) seem merely hangovers from the earlier book. The second novel's chief stylistic innovation is self-defeating. Except for the dialogue, the book is written almost entirely in sentence fragments, as though it had been dictated by Mr. Jingle. Although Donleavy may intend these fragments to tell us something about George Smith or about his society, the fragmentation becomes a surface annoyance and serves finally to reinforce the impression that we are being given the same thing over and over.

Gerald Weales, "No Face and No Exit: The Fiction of James Purdy and J. P. Donleavy," in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 143-54.

[Reviewers have called The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B] Donleavy's best book since The Ginger Man. Which is saying a lot, since The Ginger Man is a first-rate novel. But it is also not to say all one would wish about The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. For this is not so much Donleavy's best book since The Ginger Man, as it is The Ginger Man—in its flashiest parts most especially.

And that's the rub. Donleavy is dangerously close to writing his old book all over again. Oh, the characters and the story are different, but oftentimes only accidentally so. Move from surface to substance and one encounters the familiarities of mode and technique that made The Ginger Man a triumph. The exotic chef has returned to the book of recipes, tried and true….

Curiously, this does not seem to be what Donleavy intended. A mature Donleavy, far more sophisticated than the Donleavy of The Ginger Man, opens his book in Paris, and sets about some serious mood and character delineation. This is vintage Donleavy: serious and characteristically humorous; perceptive and feeling, and always within identifiable contexts, even when he is introducing 12-year-old Balthazar to the wonders of sex (and fatherhood) through his 24-year-old nannie. The situation is heavy with the components of farce, and one would expect Donleavy to pull all the stops. But he plays it straight—or reasonably straight—handling Balthazar as delicately and gracefully as a Mike Nichols directing a Dustin Hoffman….

But Donleavy doesn't maintain his directions. At a given point his story gets away from him, and precisely when he brings Balthazar across the Irish Sea and enrolls him at Trinity. Whether it is Trinity or Dublin, or, as I suspect, a bit of each, the two have a wildly exhilarating effect on Donleavy; he reminds one, for all the world, of the old grad who never gets college or the college town out of his system and who makes an ass of himself at every reunion….

This is a hard thing to say about a writer so talented as J. P. Donleavy; it is said only because Donleavy, being talented, should be above stunting, just as he should be above warmed-over Ginger Man. In point of fact, he gives the reader more, much more, in the first hundred pages of Beatitudes, but then the serving goes stale, except for the later time when Donleavy is busy with the romance of Balthazar and classmate Elizabeth Fitzdare. Again Donleavy puts aside highjinks and settles down to some sober storytelling. But soon he is bored and impatient, so Fitzdare is thrown from a horse, dies and is buried. Balthazar and the reader are back in the hands of the impulsive stunt man.

John Deedy, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 7, 1969, pp. 710-12.

Though eager to succeed, the Donleavy hero has an aristocratic disdain for Success. He insists on playing the game his way, even though the prospect of failure makes him giddy. In his aggressive phase, he is willing to employ violence, cunning, and a ruthless energy in the pursuit of his goals; in his passive guise he offers his vulnerability as proof of his goodhearted innocence. He may be wise in the ways of the world, but he is never worldly wise….

In the twenties Scott Fitzgerald offered the innocent but sophisticated young an image of flaming youth. To live in the high style meant using money while spurning the money-getting process. The fun, while it lasted, depended on the camaraderie of a set of people sharing values that clearly distinguished them from the lesser breeds unable to afford either material or spiritual luxury. In the sixties Donleavy has attracted a considerable "underground" following, especially on campuses in the East. He, too, offers an image of rebellious youth, but the company of the elite is sadly diminished. More single-minded and more embattled in their quest for erotic pleasure, apparently born with the taste of defeat in their mouths, they invent (or their creator does) a style of life for themselves, nervous and lyrical, compounded of tough-minded vulgarity and tender-minded elegance. The glamor of fine clothes, good food, and hand-some bodies is still very much in evidence, but the hero is more and more isolated. To dream of the good life in any substantial sense would be a hypocrisy beyond his spiritual means; the best he can manage is a defiant protest on behalf of the single man against the world that would unman him.

John Rees Moore, "Afterword" (1969) to his essay, "Hard Times and the Noble Savage: J. P. Donleavy's 'A Singular Man'," (1964), in The Sounder Few: Essays from the "Hollins Critic," edited by R. H. W. Dillard, George Garrett, and John Rees Moore, University of Georgia Press, 1971, pp. 14-15.

Mr Donleavy has imagination, unfortunately of a rather obsessive and repetitive order. Where it is apparently freed entirely, as in The Onion Eaters, the obsessive and repetitive elements are inclined to take over, somewhat to the reader's discomfort. Both the scenes of violence and the sexual encounters suggest an attitude to the human body and its functions, weaknesses and pleasures, which is anything but tender, compassionate, or celebratory. The book is written in the present tense, a device over-used to suggest narrative energy, in staccato, frequently verbless sentences which do not make for easy reading and which seem to occlude rather than reveal the occasional flash of real humour or feeling.

"Three's Company," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), July 23, 1971, p. 849.

J. P. Donleavy is a master of some of the most glorious nonsense to have been written since Sterne fell dead.

When Donleavy first came on with The Ginger Man, there was some hint that he too was an angry young man, and was rich in meaning, which, to be sure, he was keeping up his sleeve.

Not so, at all. There is a kind of comedy that may well begin in the traditional comic solicitude for a liquid articulateness to life on this planet but which soon forgets such noble guff and goes for the horselaugh. Donleavy has simply chosen to be as funny as he can, and does not sit down to the typewriter until he has several pages' worth of high-class insanity to record.

The Onion Eaters is therefore an outrageous performance from first page to last, with no mercy shown in any quarter. There is a plot, but it is in shambles before very long. There are characters whose achievements in idiocy reach heights undreamed of by Jerome K. Jerome, Wodehouse or Stella Gibbons. The only parallel fit to put beside Donleavy is his master Beckett….

Donleavy is uninterruptedly bawdy, yet his obscenity is so grand and so open, that it rises above giving offense into a realm of its own, unchallenged and wild. Even the most prudish reader, however, might profitability stomach Mr. Donleavy's Gaelic randiness for the sake of his wit, which is as keen as can be found in comic writing in this dreary century, and for the sake of his invention, which belongs in Ben Turpin's league, and Chaplin's and Keaton's. A man as funny as J. P. Donleavy may write what he will. The clown's privileges are utterly free, for it is his art that keeps us sane.

Guy Davenport, in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 8, 1971, p. 1124.

How does a man weakened by an awareness of death survive in a world experienced as magical with malevolence? This is the question the heroes of J. P. Donleavy's novels answer in their own, progressively inefficacious ways. To evade his consciousness of mortality, Sebastian Danger-field of The Ginger Man lives a hedonistic life in the present and dreams of relaxed ease for the future. George Smith of A Singular Man separates himself from the world in a parody of Howard Hughes' and John Paul Getty's attempts to avoid the disease of life. In The Saddest Summer of Samuel S and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, the heroes find heterosexual love the combatant of mutability's sadness. Donleavy's most recent hero, Clayton Claw Cleaver Clementine of The Onion Eaters, tries an uneasy synthesis of his fictional cousins' survival strategies, but his attempt to live the life he wants fails more miserably than the similar attempts of his predecessors. The degree of misery in Clementine's role of powerless victim seems to signal Donleavy's reaching the dead end of a theme—victimization—developing in his work since The Ginger Man. The Onion Eaters also introduces a fiction different in kind from that which precedes it, for although familiar features are here, often in exaggerated form, the psychological exploration which helped unify and made serious the earlier rambling plots is much diminished in The Onion Eaters. Whether dead end or new beginning, The Onion Eaters furnishes a useful perspective on the rhetorical strategies of Donleavy's always comic novels, for the rhetoric of this latest novel both parallels and significantly differs from the rhetoric of his early work….

The jagged syntax of Donleavy's early work does not, as one might expect, become progressively fragmented with his development of victimization as a central theme. In fact, the syntax of Beastly Beatitudes and The Onion Eaters is less wrenched than the syntax of The Ginger Man and A Singular Man. The fractured syntax of those two novels was a good correlative of the active desperation of their protagonists, for the interrupted sentences gave the impression of consciousness anxious in threatening time. Sentences do not reach their natural end because their speakers fear they themselves may end first. Working away from the comedy of dynamic desperation to a comedy of sadness and resignation, Donleavy finds conventional syntax adequate for the more conventional perceptions of a Balthazar or Clementine. Living a life after the death of others, they are not threatened by time, feel no need to hurry up their speech and thoughts to the extent that earlier heroes did. As passive victims who are less able to honor the aristocratic code of style than their predecessors and as men not anxious for conversation, Balthazar and Clementine tend toward silence….

The Onion Eaters is ultimately the nightmare of a small boy whose faithful dog (Elmer) provides no protection against the castrating females and mysterious wizards who haunt his lonely room (Charnel Castle). In The Ginger Man, A Singular Man, and Beastly Beatitudes, the male alliance against the world lies just below the surface sexuality, but this adolescent response has become increasingly retrograde until, in The Onion Eaters, it dissolves into the sentimental situation of boy and dog in a cold world, a kernel difficult to make into adult fiction. In The Ginger Man the hero's fantasies were nearly equal to his fears; victim and victimizer were one. With A Singular Man began the hero's acquiescence to his victimization until, in The Onion Eaters, the reader rebels at the helplessness of a man both too much and too little like Sebastian Dangerfield to be entombed in Charnel Castle.

Thomas LeClair, "'The Onion Eaters' and the Rhetoric of Donleavy's Comedy," in Twentieth Century Literature, July, 1972, pp. 167-74.

Sad to say, J. P. Donleavy remains the author of The Ginger Man. His first novel read like Henry Miller on the loose in James Joyce's Dublin and made Britain's so-called Angry Young Men sound rather docile and good-natured. But the Ginger Man style has become a prison: even the prefaces in [The Plays of J. P. Donleavy] are partly written in Donleavy's patented, whimsical version of stream of consciousness. As for the plays—The Ginger Man, Fairy Tales of New York, A Singular Man, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, all based on his published or unpublished fiction—they prove repeatedly that a series of duologues and monologues need not add up to a real play. The first three have been produced in London, but they contain hardly a scene that goes, or even seems to be going, anywhere. Oddly, Donleavy's trump card—the daft things people say to themselves and partners while making love—is never played. Even so, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin was displeased, as the preface "What They Did in Dublin with The Ginger Man" relates. It may be Donleavy's most lasting contribution to theater history.

Vivian Mercier, in World (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 18, 1972, p. 66.

J. P. Donleavy's The Onion Eaters … proves suspicions many critics voiced after the publication of The Saddest Summer of Samuel S.: Donleavy has stagnated in the brilliant formal and thematic gimcrackery which made his first novel, The Ginger Man, such an unusual and exciting book. Donleavy has gone nowhere since then. There is still the picaresque hero with unusual genital endowments, beset by sex-hungry, voracious females, finally finding refuge with a sweet, innocent, but sexy country-girl; there is still the lonely, underdog protagonist, thrown into a grotesquely hostile world, desperately wanting to be rich and happy beyond any possible measure, intruded upon by weird characters who seem to have escaped from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch…. Donleavy emerges as the author whom one likes to remember for having created Sebastian Dangerfield, that most pathetic, yet moving antihero of The Ginger Man, and, maybe, for The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. His latest novel, regrettably, is just another layer of the same onion, without getting us any closer to the core.

Franz G. Blaha, in Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1972, p. 276.

"A Fairy Tale of New York" … is provisioned with the malign Niebelungen of our urban land: power jobbers, sexual self-destructs, kamikaze eccentrics. It's about social impotence and despair. Valleys of humiliation, sloughs of despond: all the grim topography of that other Christian's progress. [Donleavy's hero is Cornelius Christian.] Salvation for Cornelius is pessimistic: emigration. He returns to Europe. Yet Donleavy's thunderous, superb humor has the efficacy of grace. It heals and conquers and ratifies.

The style is adaptable as Plastic Man. A stream of consciousness with wild cataracts in it. The whole should be italicized: it has the unsyntactical terseness of stage directions. Donleavy's style is cantilevered to support strong feeling. "When I was a little boy. Left in a brand new foster home. I went out playing the afternoon around the block. Got lost, so busy telling all the other kids a fairy tale of New York. That my real father was a tycoon and my mother a princess." And it has the resilience, the necessary amplitude, for boisterous laughter. "Stand here in the vestibule. When I first heard that word. Thought that's what women had. And they asked you in." A modern style: streamlined as some compact, collapsible appliance. And Donleavy is master of it.

Yet the novel has a stellar fault: one that might just as easily be admired. It's too funny. Even if you accept a fairy tale ambience, the big dialogue set pieces with their uproarious verbal confusions, their crazy reversals and accurate characterization, distract from the narrative's structural line…. Donleavy, I think, has disfigured "A Fairy Tale of New York" for the sake of entertainment. There is a musical comedy unevenness: disquieting pauses for chorus and duet and long, glad applause.

Yet I mean to be grateful. J. P. Donleavy is a writer of explosive, winning imagination. I loved "A Fairy Tale of New York." For its faults; for its several successes.

D. Keith Mano, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1973, p. 6.

In Donleavy's fiction gravity and absurdity go hand in hand….

The composition by phrases and full stops, and the substitution of present participles—putting up, smoking, getting out—for more active and transitive verb forms are essential Donleavy and impart a dance-like movement….

In picaresque narrative characters other than the hero tend to be used up and discarded as the picaro makes his progress through the shams and facades of the represented society. In A Fairy Tale two characters—Fanny Sourpuss, an ex-prostitute turned millionaire widow, and an ancient Jewish physician expounding the spiritual efficacy of regular bowel movements—stay present and compelling. These are mentor figures teaching a wisdom, in bed and consulting room, that is obscene and true.

Donleavy's investigation and fantastication of the New York he grew up in and regularly, secretively, visits are thorough. No borough except Richmond is left unturned. Affection, loathing, nostalgia and fear are main components of the attitude he brings to bear upon his native place. The language, especially in certain set scenes taking place in mortuaries, courtrooms, taverns, penthouse apartments and in the streets and subway stations, is electrically alive. Hidden away in the book for those who can find it is a good deal of personal revelation, a good deal of alembicated and metamorphosed autobiography….

Since A Fairy Tale of New York is Donleavy's best book to date and ample evidence of his staying power, I predict that his Boswell will appear in time. Candidates for the job should be quick on their feet, handy with the mitts (for sparring, shadow boxing and bobbing and feinting sessions only), and infinitely tolerant of the put-on and the leg-pull.

Julian Moynahan, "The Rake's Progress," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 30, 1973, p. 5.

"A Fairy Tale" is not among Donleavy's better books. At his best, this man is rather a magician, stitching idiosyncratic fantasies together into almost the texture of myth. At his least, he is simply a sleight-of-hand artist, a master of languidly easy effects. "A Fairy Tale of New York" finds him in perigee….

There are some felicities in the writing, most of it in a spare, disjunctive, Joycean stream-of-consciousness style, but without Joyce's puns or allusions….

L. E. Sissman, in The New Yorker, October 8, 1973, pp. 168-69.

From The Ginger Man on, J. P. Donleavy's novels have been simultaneously cruel, sentimental, repetitive and sporadically funny. Donleavy heroes are ridiculous figures who wallow in self-pity behind their mannered fronts and anesthetize deep personal hurts with sex and alcohol.

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time, Inc.), October 29, 1973, p. E3.

Four hundred and ten pages of fairy tale is a bit much, isn't it?… But Donleavy, I'm told, has a cult following, and as we know—already knew, in fact, but know especially well in the pop age—cult fans can't get too much of a bad thing. And here's our Irish American dutifully churning out 410 pages of it for them…. All minced into bits and pieces of sentences, which is at least something to be thankful for.

Margaret Drabble, in a broadcast, found [the] hamburger-style prose [of A Fairy Tale in New York] tiresome. But one burps to think how soggily indigestible it would have been, served up in long, sinuous sentences. Like 410 platefuls of congealed spaghetti. Give me a stale, early 1960s-style hamburger, or a Ginger Man, any day. Or, on second thoughts, no, please don't.

James Brockway, in Books and Bookmen, November, 1973, pp. 96-7.