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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.)
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[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 reasons is that Donleavy's comic routines have become too repetitious…. [The Unexpurgated Code is] a digest (randomly, randily set down) of the anxious antics that make it possible for Sebastian Dangerfield, George Smith (the protagonist of A Singular Man), Beefy (Balthazar's alter ego in The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B), and Cornelius Christian (the central figure in A Fairy Tale of New York) to stay alive and preserve a sense of dignity or style in a vicious world. (pp. 212-13)
A second reason for serious shortcomings in the humor of The Unexpurgated Code is Donleavy's uncritical acceptance of inferior elements in his work. Too often he rests content with sophomoric jokes, uninspired name-calling, and rambling or irrelevant remarks on "problems" or situations that do not easily lend themselves to comic rendering (meditation, body odor, throwing food, dandruff, and the like). Naturally anything at all might be made amusing, but Donleavy's characteristic lack of intellectual detachment from or control over his material—that is, his failure to depend on the rational perception of limitations beyond which an action or gesture ceases to be funny—sometimes produces flat, heavy-handed attempts at humor that have no more wit or cleverness than the smirking solemnities of Ann Landers. His commentary on visiting the chiropodist or robbing banks, for instance, strains clumsily toward witty casualness but remains dull and inert.
The driving energy and originality, as well as the therapeutic rage and vulgarity, of The Ginger Man have never been equalled in Donleavy's later productions, quite possibly because he tends to rely on the fading impulses and feelings that inform that novel rather than on fresh experiences or new ideas. He has, however, matched its high level of performance in many chapters and scenes of succeeding books and has written three other generally excellent works of fiction: A Singular Man, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, the last of which shows weaknesses only in the monotonously passive nature of the protagonist and in the excessive length of many sections of stream-of-consciousness narration that focus on his character. Deftness and control, clarity and restraint, and a sense of proportion—all implying esthetic and intellectual distance—are not the most salient or essential features of Donleavy's art. But the obvious need for a greater measure of these qualities in each book since Balthazar (The Onion Eaters, A Fairy Tale of New York, and, to a lesser degree, The Unexpurgated Code), without some wondrous inspiration like the one that shapes The Ginger Man, predictably means trouble for a writer whose forte is comedy. (pp. 213-14)
Donleavy normally proceeds by means of instinct, inspiration, and intuition—the tools of a romantic artist. He aims to produce belly laughs and (in the fiction) a sympathetic response to his chief characters; he does not set out to impose order and rationality on experience. And instead of elevated language (which he often parodies quite effectively), he records with great skill an earthy vernacular full of both comic and lyric possibilities.
But even on the level of farce and slapstick, and even with his taste for fictionalizing the chaotic Dionysian urges in preference to a spirit of Apollonian serenity, such aesthetic properties as clarity, formal control, and restraint qualify as artistic assets. If the first novel is buoyed up by an intensity of emotion and a matchless sense of discovery that make it consistently lively and explosively funny, the works that follows show signs of flagging energy and reveal an unfortunate habit of repeating its successful formulas. Since his art evolves primarily from feelings, which cannot always be held at a genuinely creative pitch, rather than ideas or concepts, which are longer-lasting if less immediately inspiring, this kind of literary entropy might well be inevitable. (pp. 214-15)
[This latest] uneven book will be read with a mixture of admiration and exasperation, for its flaws grow out of Donleavy's typical unwillingness to excise the amateurish portions of his writing…. If his talent is not to degenerate into self-parody, Donleavy would do well to acknowledge the need for a more rigorous critical attitude toward his future work and perhaps to consider whether or not he has exhausted the store of feeling and sensibility so richly present in The Ginger Man. (p. 215)
Charles G. Masinton, "Etiquette for Ginger Man: A Critical Assessment of Donleavy's 'Unexpurgated Code'," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1977, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Winter, 1977, pp. 210-15.
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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 we have to make for the comedy and stutter-step prose. Like an ice show or circus, it's a good deal every two or three years. ("The Onion Eaters" excepted.)…
"The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman" is a bildungsroman, though the succession of japes and scrapes makes one forget it. (p. 15)
In Donleavy's world luck and coincidence are destiny; energy rules. Places are pictures and names are jokes. The self is "I" one minute, "he" the next. Aristocratic codes are fabricated for the fun Donleavy has turning them against gentry and peasants alike. Property, food, drink and talk are the certainties. Especially talk: the humped syntax of farmers; the ecclesiastical intonations of retainers; the pukka formality of aristocrats—all are deflated by their own long hiss or the carefully chosen vulgarity.
Darcy's early moonings are just silly, but his reveries while being chased by huntsmen or while making love have a fine comic irrelevance, a mixture of accents and odd perceptions. The big set pieces go off well. (p. 20)
Thomas LeClair, "Bildungsroman Irish-Style," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 6, 1977, pp. 15, 20.
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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.
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[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.
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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 that it rambles on in the manner of some 18th-century novel about rogues: sometimes its extravagances drop over into the realm of fantasy. But what seem to me to be truly and uniquely life-affirming about it are the connections that exist between the story, the style, and what life seems to be about.
In Donleavy's writing there is an almost magically potent blend of the vulgar and the elegant, the grotesque and the lyrical, the archaic and the lewdly up-to-date. The vulgarity is part of the stuff of life: what is also part of life is the elegance and nobility with which human beings can, sometimes, handle the other, darker part—can come to terms with it and even love it. These opposites are held together in Mr Donleavy's writing in the person of the narrator in a quite self-conscious way: the narrator writes of himself now in the first person and now in the third—as if he were naturally aware of himself as in part foolish and helpless, and in part detached and with some possibilities of control. His sentences, his repartee, in the way they bring the vulgar and the elegant together, are often weirdly witty—as if in this there is authority and potency. Other characters with whom he has sympathy come to talk in his style: it is as if life-affirmation were held in an elaborate network of human wittiness….
Donleavy ends each of his chapters with one of those brief four- or six-line poems that have become a hallmark of his writing. These, too, seem to be distillations, like pearls or tears, of all the stresses and strains that have gone before. They seem to say: in life, there is a lot of dross, yes; there are also small bits of gold and diamond, which, if you find them, are worth more than all the rest put together.
Nicholas Mosley, "Bits of Gold," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of Nicholas Mosley), May 11, 1978, p. 618.