J. P. Donleavy Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) 1926–

Donleavy is an American-born Irish novelist, dramatist, and short story writer. Critics differ sharply on their assessment of Donleavy: some consider him a serious and original artist, others accuse him of continually mining the same vein that proved successful with his first novel, The Ginger Man. Most would agree, however, that his work is distinguished by its exuberant, idiosyncratic prose style, lusty, nonconforming anti-heros, and concern with finding peace and reason in an absurd world. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Charles G. Masinton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] his most recent book, The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners (1975), [as in his preceding works, Donleavy's] chief interest lies in exploiting for humorous effect the circumstances of the unpedigreed but desperately eager individual who seeks to join the ranks of the social elite…. Indeed, The Unexpurgated Code is the kind of book that the zany, non-conforming protagonist of The Ginger Man, Sebastian Dangerfield, very well might have written … had he decided, in rakish middle age, to reveal the rules by which he has managed not only to survive but also to prosper in a cutthroat society. (p. 210)

[Donleavy] uses his burlesque book of etiquette primarily as a vehicle for the expression of his great scorn for all elements in society—both "high" and "low." The society he depicts—usually British in its demarcations of caste but sometimes suggesting an American milieu—is a freakish and sardonic distortion of the one we know, a cruelly comic caricature of the conventional social world….

Donleavy's anger and disgust, which have always been a part of his humor, recurrently manifest themselves here in an impulse to scourge and satirize, though the impulse lacks intellectual discipline and consistency and is, therefore, not fully realized. The bizarre social arena of the book mirrors a number of the follies and vices of humankind, and Donleavy concentrates his attack especially on those that either result from or help to preserve distinctions of class and rank. Moreover, his comic distortions are meant to reflect not only the anxiety that torments the socially inept but also the urge to dominate that so frequently underlies the desire for social prominence. (p. 211)

Quite clearly, and with gleeful malice aforethought, he has turned the standard book of etiquette on its head. Instead of treating distinctly proper matters with delicacy, in a manner that reflects well-received opinion, Donleavy examines subjects that range from the mildly sleazy to the utterly abominable and expresses, with arch disdain, attitudes about these seamy topics that harshly ridicule conventional society.

In its own terms, as a work of satiric low comedy, The Unexpurgated Code often succeeds marvelously well. It has laughter-provoking passages that display Donleavy's considerable powers as a sharp-eyed observer of human folly with a unique gift for creating droll scenes and funny dialogue. The pseudo-solemnity with which he approaches his deliberately inane or offensive material, and the modulations in tone that he manages to extract from this basic stance, in themselves demonstrate that this book issues from talent of a fairly high order. But in many instances the humor of The Unexpurgated Code flatly misses the mark and sharply disappoints.

One of the...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Almost 20 years ago, before Ken Kesey's McMurphy, before Joseph Heller's Yossarian, "Dangerfield Lives" was on blackboards and toilet walls. Sebastian Dangerfield had scurried out of "The Ginger Man," J. P. Donleavy's first novel, into existence as the patron cad of the collegiate underground. His latest hero, Reginald Darcy Thormond Dancer Kildare, will never make the graffiti. The Donleavy hero hasn't grown up, just become more respectable, the gentleman Dangerfield pretended to be in his homemade Trinity College rowing blues. Darcy Dancer lives, all right, but he is contained in this novel, where he won't be inspiring belief and attracting followers.

Create a cult hero and readers expect another one every time out or mistake their attraction for high art. So novels since "The Ginger Man" have been occasions to bemoan Donleavy's revisionism or debilities. But "The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman" is not very different in quality from that first novel, when it is re-read and not just fondly remembered. While sensibility is sharper in "The Ginger Man," it and "Darcy Dancer," along with Donleavy's five other novels, are essentially literate entertainments, unpretentious picaresques with flaws that shouldn't be taken any more seriously than their pleasures. Repetition, simplemindedness, even sentimentality are evident in Donleavy's previous works and here in "The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman," too; they are part of the deal...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Ruth Mathewson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When J. P. Donleavy's first novel, The Ginger Man, was published …, it created something of a stir, especially among young readers who saw its hero, Sebastian Dangerfield, as an attractive representative of their generation. Less impressed were some critics, who found the book at best a celebration of adolescent wishfulfillment. They would not be surprised by the shallowness of Donleavy's seventh novel, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman….

I, on the other hand, now see in The Ginger Man an unfulfilled promise. Dangerfield, a GI in Dublin, a Yank in Trinity, was an interesting new hero…. And it seems to me that Donleavy had seized upon a valid idea—to place in Dublin, where the average citizen feels "like an outcast from life's feast" (Joyce's phrase is implicit in the book), a man with an insatiable appetite; a man who, observing that "67 per cent of the population have never been completely naked," is himself, for reasons of bohemian poverty or sexual activity, seldom clothed. Yet the full possibilities of the concept were unrealized. There was no real reciprocity between Dangerfield and the Irish, or any recognition that it was lacking. Perhaps the model for The Ginger Man was Henry Miller's The Tropic of Cancer—sexual acrobatics, brutality to women, cadging, flight, and all. Donleavy used Ireland as Miller used France, as a backdrop for enacting a dream of sexual freedom.

Darcy Dancer shows us that his heroes have never abandoned this dream. But it is difficult to determine whether this mock-innocent account of the young squire's sexual adventures on his Anglo-Irish country estate and in Dublin is meant to produce the effects of an old-fashioned pornographic novel, or merely to parody them. Parody—or at least imitation—is suggested, too, by the fact that Dancer, like Tom Jones, is a bastard….

As in Donleavy's earlier books, nature and atmosphere are often vividly conveyed, and the author provides some sharp, funny talk when Dancer is cast out of his estate to wander the countryside and find work in the stables of a newly-rich family. On the whole, though, this "bawdy," "lusty," "gamy" novel is a bore. Sebastian Dangerfield at least stirred strong feelings pro and con. About Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, regrettably, it is impossible to care. (p. 17)

Ruth Mathewson, in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 19, 1977.

Ken Lawless

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman] affords the reader all the delights of a master working at the top of his form. No literary artist working in English today is better than J. P. Donleavy, and few merit comparison with him….

This new work is an important part of a significant oeuvre. The Donleavy eye for sensual detail is sharp as ever, the ear for idiomatic dialogue still perfect. The Donleavy themes—friendship, the family, loneliness—make up in importance what they lack in fashion. The chapter ending poems are as wonderful as ever…. It is too late to be discovering that J. P. Donleavy is a very great writer, although this … book is ample proof. It would be an interesting stunt to review a Donleavy work without mentioning "The Ginger Man" because even without that book his achievement would put him in the first rank, but it is time to realize that "The Ginger Man" did not place this artist in a sort of permanent Sophomore Slump. To state this in plain terms—the author of "The Ginger Man" has written yet another wonderful book with many of the virtues of that comic masterpiece and some interesting variations. (p. 128)

Ken Lawless, in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1978 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 36, No. 1, 1978.

Nicholas Mosley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is difficult to write a life-affirming novel nowadays: too much is known about the tawdriness and shams of almost all levels of society, and a novel that does not have a social context is exposed to the sterilising rays of subjectivity. It is J. P. Donleavy's great achievement to have created both a style of writing and a subject-matter [in The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman] that are exuberantly in praise of life, and yet not too fantastical to seem true….

J. P. Donleavy's last book was the extremely funny The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners: this new novel is an even funnier (and much more touching) illustration of this code. It is picaresque in...

(The entire section is 453 words.)