‘The Ginger Man sent a thrill of anarchic energy through me that I can still feel today’

JP Donleavy manages to construct a voice for his raucous, selfdramatizing hero that combines the experiments of Irish modernism with a guiltless American individualism

and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.
from 'J.P. Donleavy's Dublin' by Derek Mahon

What is it about The Ginger Man that, sixty years old now, still puts a glint in the eye of every reader? Is there, even after all this time, something risky, illicit perhaps, about Sebastian Dangerfield whispering in your ear while your heart is bursting with laughter? How can this foreign cad – who doesn’t give a damn for anything decent, who is only after a better look down your cleavage or for you, my good fellow, to buy the next round – make such a beautiful noise?

The Ginger Man was one of the first books I read when I moved to Dublin in the late 1990s. Born in Derry, it was my first time in the Free State capital after nearly two decades abroad in Europe and Scandinavia. Some part of me believed I was coming home. A long period of stateless wandering had come to an end and I hoped to finally inflict some of that experience on the world with a book or two. There was Joyce and Beckett to measure up to, of course, Edna O’Brien and John McGahern, but that first reading of The Ginger Man sent a thrill of anarchic energy through me that I can still feel today. The poetic derangement captured in this novel opened my eyes to what fiction could do, how it was possible to liberate the unruly hidden side of our nature, the deep stash of hunger and deviance, without getting lost in incoherence. To combine the public verb with the dirtiest clandestine thought in the one sentence. To say what can’t be said. And to keep the reader laughing at the same time. The Ginger Man ruined me to the core.

As if that wasn’t enough, I was struck also by the history of the book and the figure of the man behind it, JP Donleavy. Here was a lesson for every young writer, the legendary story of an author’s fight against a double-crossing publisher and censorship laws for the honest publication of his novel. Here was the supernatural tale of a manuscript doctored in the author’s absence by an inspired drunkard called Brendan Behan, who then ran off with the author’s shoes. And here was a novel set in 1950s Dublin, which I could still see physical traces of in the early boom-time streets and smell in the air of the pubs on a wet afternoon. The book was like a guide to an older shadow city full of a lush outlawed lore. In secret, these people of the capital venerated the flourish of personality and the dancing tongue above their altars and new glass towers, and laughter over prayer. This was the other side of Yeats’ people born to kneel and save.

‘In my heart where no one else can hear me,’ Sebastian Dangerfield sings himself astray. The huge shock of this character is that, in his private thoughts, there really is nobody or nothing to hide from. This man has granted himself the appalling right to say and think whatever the hell he likes. Silver-tongued seducer, hoaxer, thief, violent marauder, fantasist and drunk, he’s a Yank into the bargain, the rank outsider and ‘great gas’ altogether. You cannot help yourself enjoying his outrageous company because the damp walls of Dublin are closing in on him, it is the ‘midnight of everything’ and his song is lyrical and filthy and defiant. On his last legs, married with a child, broke, down to nothing but his plummy accent and musky bravado, he knows there are consolations to be found under slips and petticoats and stained sheets.

Lilly, I never get tired of your white thirty four year old bubas, buns or beauties. Or will I ever get over how much I like to imagine them under that green pajama top. Rare that I ever make these dogmatic statements but I cannot help feeling that when other things are gone that carnal knowledge is here to stay.

Son of the free new world, an American GI washed up on a peculiar little island scarcely touched by the war, Dangerfield refuses to be caged by the scruffy-genteel morality and fantastic poverty or even by the tiresome business of having to study for his law degree. The city is a ‘great gray trap’, the cloud so low some days he has to bend down to get under it. From that moment early on in the novel when he lifts the axe ‘above a wild head, driving it again and again through the pillow’ of his marriage bed, the mayhem begins. But make no mistake, he knows they are watching him.

Out there they watch between the nettles, counting the blades of grass, waiting for each other to die, with the eyes of cows and brains of snakes. Monsters growling from their chains and wailing in the black pits at night. And me. I think I am their father.

The Ginger Man, like Joyce’s Ulysses, is a father and son story with the high-brow classicism stripped away. You can hear echoes of Bloom’s footsteps around Donleavy’s Dublin and the splash and flow of Molly’s domestic concupiscence. However, the Dedalus figure, as played by Dangerfield, longs to escape and soar on wings woven only from money: ‘I want to see dollars. Thousands of them. Want them all over me to pave the streets of me choosey little soul.’ Denied by his father the means to live as he might, Dangerfield’s mind lurches between cash-filled ‘reverie at time of crackup’ and outbursts of violence. When his wife Marion announces she has informed his father of his ‘horrid and hideous’ treatment of her and the child, Dangerfield flies into a rage, calls her a scheming slut and threatens to strangle her. And yet we laugh, hand covering mouth. Dangerfield may manage to hold our sympathy at this point because we know he has just disgraced himself on the train from Westland Row – ‘Part of you, sir, is showing’ – but something else is being exposed to us here, the flaw in the man, the wound he believes only his father’s money can heal. Yes, if there’s one thing, other than improving his carnal knowledge, that sustains Dangerfield in his manic ‘spider-walk’ around this ‘English amusement park’ of a city, it is the dream that life will one day be fine and dandy when the father’s dosh starts to flow, when, sporting his very own coat of arms, ‘bowler hat crossed by a walking stick,’ he will be able to resume his ‘proper place in society’. Until then, he will have to wait. And wait. And wait some more, while however refusing to do anything else to make a crust. Behind the swagger, Dangerfield views himself as a Christ-like figure, sent down below, forsaken, persecuted by creditors, hiding from the cross of poverty in the arms of women.

My God, it’s absolutely awful. Be made for the world. But the world was made for me. Here long before I arrived and they spend years getting it ready. Something got mixed up about my assets.

Dangerfield grabs a place for himself in the tradition of Romantic heroes who adhere to the motto, Le style, c’est l’homme. The self, and its conflicts, is the final concern of the modern imagination. ‘If there is illusion,’ he proclaims to himself, ‘live it with a flourish.’ JP Donleavy manages to construct a voice for his raucous, selfdramatizing hero that combines the experiments of Irish modernism with a guiltless American individualism. The jazzy dancing around between points of view, between third and first person, not only replicates the drunk’s anxious mind on the morning after but over the course of the book seems to question the modern relevance of resorting to any point of view outside of the character’s own.

They wait on the curb. Two beetle American cars go by. A breeze. Cool sky. Taking her hand an instant, warm knuckles of her long fingers. Just guiding you safely across. She went up the stairs before him, curious climber. White petticoat. Slight pigeon toe. The voices around the corner and in the door. Slight hush as they enter, and sit. She crosses her legs and smooths her skirt over her nice knee.

We narrate ourselves, from all angles, far and near. We are everybody and nobody. The fluid transitions from one tense to another in the writing give us the sense we are neither here nor there. Or that everything is present at once, like a Cubist portrait. There are macabre surrealist episodes as, for example, the brawl scene in a London pub with Dangerfield wearing a kangaroo costume. The days are ‘oblong’ or ‘triangular’. The character’s background, what might be used to explain him, appears only in thick sentimental curlicues. Then there are periods where the writing is kinetic, like an action painting, fast paced, trusting in chance meanings, alternating with long solipsistic bouts of interior monologue. The writer attacks from every side of the page.

They say nothing lasts. It’s all gray. Gray for what? Gray for rain. And pink for poodles. Colours for everything. They say, green for work. Now what is it? For Idleness? I think the black. You there below decks, run me up a little black ensign. Well? For lust. What are they going to say? Red? No. Not red. I think the brown. Brown for lust.

Donleavy said about writing the book that he wanted to get the words off the page right into the reader’s brain, into their nervous system. ‘With my new tongue. I’m going to be a reality,’ Dangerfield promises himself. Nicely constructed sentences weren’t going to achieve that, but volleys of jabbing, vivid detail might do it. Some descriptive passages hit suddenly like a combination of blows to the head, leaving you seeing stars. Here is Sebastian’s first look at Christine’s flat:

Green carpet on the floor, faded and beat. Square wash basin in the corner and a red screen. The fireplace neatly with a copy of the Evening Mail. A boarded up door out to the back garden. She said in heavy rain, water came in on the floor. And another door into the hall. Out there I take my baths and late at night for leisure. I will scrub your back. That would be nice… A battered wardrobe, half open and a green coat, and three pairs of shoes. On the window sill next to the front door, a gas ring, and a few pans hanging on the wall.

This kind of dirty realism brought the book to the attention of writers who were part of the so called Angry Young Men movement in Britain in the 1950s. John Osborne claimed to have read the novel before writing Look Back in Anger. They may have in common the kitchen-sink ethos and a spirit of rebellion against class-bound postwar society, and marriage in particular, but Sebastian Dangerfield isn’t ruled by the same embittered misogyny as Osborne’s Jimmy Porter. Dangerfield is much more prone to visions of largesse, wholeness, and ‘bestial bedlam.’

The laundry girls are standing on pots of steaming clothes, pounding them with their Celtic ankles and doing a strip tease. I see them all out there and we laugh, he ho ha, the pulse of it and the country girls, naked for the first time in their lives, falling into tubs and suds, slipping, flapping, slapping their obese bodies. It’s holiday.

In young Mary, the novel comes near to giving us a heroine of this unscrupulous realism. A short busty girl with green eyes, long black hair and an ‘experimental’ appetite, who looks after her abusive father in north Dublin, she is sometimes more than a match for the ever-randy Dangerfield. Prostrate, pinned to the bed under her, she ‘had me by the wrists when she was up on top of me with that look, see if you can get out of this one’. Brave, curious, feisty, shrewd, battling her way through in the world, and ‘the very devil for it’ too, Mary becomes slightly more than another temporary sanctuary by the end of the book for this man who feels ‘all my homes are behind me’. From the over-eager girl on a mattress in a coal shed in Dublin to the salacious young lady in London with some kind of dubious ‘film contract,’ her love and lust for her man works to keep our faith in Dangerfield alive. Or at the very least, our hopes for his survival. During a bout of pillow-talk, she tells him,

There are no other men because my heart has gone out to you. And if you don’t laugh I’ll tell you what I think. I won’t laugh. I think it’s a fine instrument that God made for the poor likes of us to enjoy.

Being a writer is about ‘just catching your unconscious’, Donleavy has said. The stress should fall on the word ‘just’. Most of what Dangerfield does in the course of this book, he does obstinately, grossly, his sense of his own innocence expanding in equal measure. He doesn’t learn much about himself other than maybe, like all things, he is running out of steam. In London by the end, on a Christmas morning, ‘weary of my terrifying heart,’ his thoughts circle and trail off into perhaps some kind of Guernica-inspired vision of horses ‘running out to death which is with some soul and their eyes are mad and teeth out.’ But at least Mary is waiting for him with rashers and tea. Who knows what will become of them?

While The Ginger Man may have been written as a threnody lamenting the passing world of a group of hell-raisers from Trinity College and the surrounding pubs, and while it is up to its neck in porter and tea and grime, and a pawn-shop gloom infects every bedroom, the song of Sebastian Dangerfield touches heights of uncanny joy, and is bedevilled by something ancient, pagan perhaps, like 'a gentle Grafton Street breeze, tempting me to stay alive forever'. At some level, like Dangerfield, we are all deposed kings, and queens, waiting on our true inheritance, our birthright, to take our place again at the great original feast.
Sean O'Reilly
Dublin, May 2015