Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 346 pages; 1997.
For someone who has an incurable penchant for Irish fiction, I can’t believe I let J.P. Donleavy slip me by for so long. But until very recently he was completely unknown to me. So when my Other Half went on a solo run to Dublin recently and bought me The Ginger Man as a gift I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Funnily enough, I recognised the cover of the book, but I’m not sure why. I don’t think I have ever picked it up in a book shop. But that’s by the by.
The blurb on my edition waxes rather lyrical, calling it a “masterpiece” and “a triumph”, but I think that’s not credit enough. The Ginger Man is a thoroughly wonderful, riotously funny, head-shakingly brilliant read. I loved it from the very first line to the last.
First published in Paris in 1955, the book was banned in Ireland — where it is set — and the USA for obscenity. More than 50 years on, the story is still crude and ribald but certainly not as offensive as it must have seemed in more temperate times in places verging on puritan.
The story follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who is studying law at Trinity College just after the Second World War. Married to an English woman and with an infant daughter, Dangerfield is a chancer who shies away from any form of responsibility, preferring to hang out with his friend, fellow student Kenneth O’Keefe, rather than do any proactive study.
Obsessed with booze and women, he does everything a married man should not do: spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol, staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife. He also has numerous adulterous affairs in which he treats the women abominably. He is, in short, a thoroughly unlikable and selfish cad. And yet, in Donleavy’s hands, Dangerfield is a character you love to hate. I spent most of the time thinking this can’t be true, he can’t get away with this, surely the man has a conscience? And kept turning the pages, hoping to discover that the man would mend his wicked ways if only he realised his behaviour was so outrageously appalling.
The book is written in a weird mish-mash of viewpoints, effortlessly switching between first person and third person, typical of the following paragraph:
‘Come here and sit beside me while I open this bottle.’
She came and sat on the mattress beside him, leaning against the wall, watching him with a flourish of wrist, pop the cork. We lay in the remnants of coal. And a pile of turf. I happen to know that dogs and cats prefer coal and turf. And I don’t relish finding myself sitting in it.
There are some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; others so shockingly brutal you’re not sure you want to read on. I found myself not knowing whether I should be grimacing or chortling throughout. But it’s this very fine line between comedy and tragedy that makes The Ginger Man work — on so many different levels. The beauty of this rather marvellous novel is that it paints a very human portrait of a man so desperately troubled — financially, emotionally, mentally — that it’s hard not to empathise with him just a little.
For those that want to know more about J.P. Donleavy, there’s a wonderful profile of him on the Guardian website. He sounds like a truly fascinating character with whom I must acquaint myself more fully!