I must’ve been terribly annoying when I was twenty.
Infuriating and insufferable, I was so sure I knew all I needed to know about music and literature. One could document my tunnel-vision with loads of examples, but two stand out in my mind. The first was musical. At the time, my knowledge of The Kinks was minimal, a handful of hits that everyone knew, and which I liked, but which really didn’t even hint at the genius of Ray Davies’ songwriting. Then my friend Doug, presumably fed up with my hesitation, forced some tapes on me, and then patiently waited. Within days I was hooked, searching high and low for LPs about village greens, the British empire, the record-industry money-go-round, and Muswell Hill, along with collections of glorious and sad singles and B-sides, especially from those magical mid 60s to early 70s. The Kinks quickly became my favorite band. My early resistance is incomprehensible to me now, years later – a lifetime removed from those heady college days – as The Kinks remain on top of a very select list. And I find it baffling and more than a little irritating that more people haven’t caught on. People who should know better; people who…
So, yes, books. Right. I was getting to the books part. The other instance of my youthful intransigence was literary. My reading at the time consisted of two or three authors. Great ones, to be sure, Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway topping the list. But I was closed to everything else. Then – the ambush. I was in Toronto, riding the subway with a friend, (Doug, again) likely in one of my if-it’s-not-Kurt-Vonnegut-then-I’m-not-interested moods, when he pounced. I didn’t see it coming. He took out a paperback and pushed it into my hand, pointed to a passage and commanded me to read. Smart really, I tend to shrink from public confrontation, especially with someone seven inches taller than me, so a crowded subway would mean I wouldn’t, couldn’t put up a fight. Plus… you know… witnesses. Before I knew it I was reading colorful, vibrant narration and dialogue so explosively funny and sarcastic and bawdy that I couldn’t put it down.
That writer was J.P. Donleavy, and his novel, The Onion Eaters, was the first time I heard his unique voice. I soon lapped up the first dozen of his books – novels, mostly, but also a short story collection and some other oddities.
Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised, the Irish-American James Patrick Donleavy wound up studying the sciences in Dublin and, except for some time in England, he pretty much remained in Ireland ever since. An accomplished painter and a trained boxer, his first novel, The Ginger Man, was an audacious debut. Published fifty years ago, this comic romp tells the story of Sebastian Dangerfield, rogue and scholar, an American studying at Trinity College, Dublin, and modeled loosely on one of Donleavy’s fellow expat American chums. Dangerfield has a wife and child, a friend, Kenneth, who shares his love of drink, debts piling up and an insatiable appetite for life.
There’s a wonderful 45-minute audio interview from 1988 with Donleavy looking back on his work, and in particular to the remarkable back-story of The Ginger Man’s publication that resulted in a 25-year lawsuit. Turned down by 45 publishers, The Ginger Man finally found a home at the Paris-based Olympia Press, publisher of equally edgy Jean Genet and Henry Miller. But, rather than treating Donleavy as one of their genuine authors, Olympia Press published The Ginger Man as if it were the work of one of their pseudonymous porno-writers, of which they had many. When Donleavy subsequently accepted proper publication elsewhere and became noted, the writs were served. Twenty five years later it was settled. Donleavy won, and… wait for it… wound up taking ownership of Olympia Press!
The Ginger Man is probably the best starting point for the neophyte, but once you’ve finished that, and if the ribald tale hasn’t offended your sensibilities, I highly recommend the woefully overlooked A Fairy Tale Of New York, probably my favorite Donleavy novel.
Meet Cornelius Christian, orphan, Brooklyn-born and Bronx-raised, returning to New York as he closes in on thirty, after a decade of cultivation and education overseas. He arrives by ship, but, sadly, his wife died during the voyage. It’s at this point that the story begins. Cornelius is bereaved, penniless and in debt to the Vine funeral home. The stuff of comedy, no? Well, indeed, this is one of the funniest comic novels I’ve read. Vine takes a shine to Cornelius and offers him a job. Cornelius, the returning American, erudite, sophisticated, polite, gratefully accepts. This is a pattern that develops – Cornelius, taken under the wing of an American success; though he himself is never as convinced of his own future as his mentor seems to be. It happens again, later, when a captain of industry, impressed by Cornelius’ breeding and forthrightness, hires him as a sort of ideas-brainstormer. Cornelius, however, is never quite what others presumed that he would be.
The women in his world also cling to some preconceived notion of what this man is all about, and when his true nature comes out, they accuse him of failing to meet their expectations. He’s no saint – a terrible drunk, a reluctant fighter who nevertheless has fists-at-the ready, his honesty which endeared him to others when sober, offends them when he’s drunk.
A Fairy Tale of New York began as a play in the early 60s, then Donleavy recast it as a novel a dozen years later. It doesn’t feel theatrical or stagy, though. If anything, there’s a cinematic sweep to the narrative. Many chapters begin with an overhead shot of New York, then through a succession of descriptive fragments, pull down to the neighborhood, to the room, to Cornelius. And then, like a camera panning over the scene, we read:
Vine guiding Christian by the arm. Past the chapel’s open gothic arched door. Four candles burning inside the blue glassed golden topped tabernacle on the altar.
Behind it all is New York – a booming, post-war New York. But Cornelius is running at a different speed. He’s searching for “someone with faith in his nobility.” But everyone else has his own agenda. You might be wonderful, they tell him, but can you sell it? A disappointment to others, he himself grows weary of the rat race: “No one will ever give you two indifferent minutes out of their lives to save twenty five million desperate ones in your own.”
An optimist at the outset, his optimism is being steadily chipped away, and he can’t shake feeling like an interloper. An American seeing America with fresh overseas eyes, he’s looked upon with suspicion. He’s a lightning rod, attracting America’s mid-century fears and attitudes, constantly met with “you’re not a subversive, are you” as he goes about politely tending to his affairs.
Like most of Donleavy’s work, the language, especially the first-person ruminations and the dialogue that weave with the narration, is ribald, lusty, profane. But scathingly honest.
So if you like a cracking good tale of an educated rascal with an appetite for life, intertwined with social satire, do yourself a favor and delve into Donleavy. Yes, I suppose I’m still as sure of myself as I ever was. The only difference is that when I was twenty, I only thought I was right. Whereas now, well, I really am right! And I might just have to ambush you on a subway or show up at your doorstep and force you, with gunpoint guerilla tactics, to take that first step.
There are new rumors of a film version of The Ginger Man with Johnny Depp as Sebastian Dangerfield. And Donleavy recently shared a drink with, and was serenaded by, the great Shane MacGowan, who you may have guessed by now is a Donleavy fan. It’s no accident that the wonderful Pogues song is called “A Fairytale of New York.”
Donleavy celebrated his 80th birthday this year, on April 23 – a birthday, incidentally, that he shares with those two pillars of literature: William Shakespeare and… well… me.
J.P. Donleavy remains one of the overlooked heroes of twentieth century literature, still going strong. Lord of the manor of his sprawling Irish estate, he’s still writing and still in fighting shape. The country gentleman with the mean left hook.