Abacus, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, J.P. Donleavy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy


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!

Book review, Fiction, Hardie Grant, Publisher, satire

‘Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring (Jetlag Travel Guide)’ by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch


Humour – paperback; Hardie Grant Books; 252 pages; 2004.

I don’t normally review books by quoting great slabs of text or “lifting” the entire blurb, but with this laugh-out-loud spoof travel guide I couldn’t resist, and so, I quote from the back cover:

For too long now Phaic Tan has been closed off to the outside world, a country visited each year by just a handful of hardy travellers, aid agency workers and hostage negotiators. But now, thanks to this fully up-dated Jetlag guide, everything you need to know about planning a trip to Phaic Tan, birthplace of the trouser press and irritable bowel syndrome, is here.

Up until 5 August 2005, Phaic Tan was unavailable outside of Australia, where I happened to pick this up last Christmas on the recommendation of some friends. The team behind this very funny book are well-known in Australian comedy circles, having written and directed many of their own television shows as well as a couple of feature length movies (The Castle and The Dish).

Essentially Phaic Tan — a completely made-up country somewhere in South-East Asia — continues the piss-taking theme presented in the first Jetlag Travel Guide, Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. It’s like any legitimate travel guide by Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide, complete with recommendations on where to eat and sleep, the attractions to see, historical facts and handy tips on how to get on with the locals — except it’s all completely fiction, of course.

Here’s some examples:

When it comes to people, Phaic Tan is a true melting pot where, for centuries, the population has absorbed a wide range of ethnic influences. In more recent times they have absorbed a wide range of heavy metals, the result of
unregulated copper mining, all of which contribute to the unique national character.


Canals have always formed a major part of Bumpattabumpahn life and just about anywhere in the city can be reached quickly by local boatmen, adept at negotiating the narrow, interlaced waterways. So skilled are these oarsmen that in 1999 a squad of Phaic Tanese rowers came very close to qualifying for the Sydney Olympics, only missing out on selection when they stopped short of the finishing line to trade vegetables with the South Korean team.

On every page there’s at least three laughs, so it’s high on comedic value. A lot of the comedy involves word play, some great tongue-in-cheek captioning (there are photographs and illustrations throughout) and a lot of sarcastic wit.

Sadly, this series is a bit of a one-trick pony: part of the joy of the first book was its novelty value because no-one had ever written a book lampooning the bloated travel guide market. But if you’ve not read either book, then the decision is yours: both are equally hilarious.

Book review, Fiction, general, Hardie Grant, Publisher, satire

‘Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry (Jetlag Travel Guide S.)’ by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch


Humour – paperback; Hardie Grant Books; 176 pages; 2004.

If you are like me and are somewhat addicted to travel guides, be they Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or something similar, you will greatly appreciate Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry.

Written by a team of Australian comedians the same men behind the films The Dish and The Castle and the current-affairs mockumentary series Frontline — this is a spoof travel guide for a fictional nation located somewhere in the Baltic region of the former USSR.

In the best travel guide tradition it provides a wealth of advice on places to stay, the best places to eat, the sights to see and intriguing little snippets about the country’s social and cultural history, all interspersed with amusing photographs and illustrations.

By turns completely realistic and laugh-out loud funny, it is one of the most entertaining reads I have had in a long while. On every single page there is something that will grab your funny bone and have you chuckling uncontrollably. For this reason, my advice is not to read it in public. It’s also not advisable to read it while you have a friend in the room because you will spend all your time annoying them by saying, “hey, listen to this”, as you regale them with insights from the book, and then, before you know it, you will be reading the whole thing out loud in between bouts of laughter.

Some random examples to prove my point:

The famous statue of Helmzlog III (the ‘Liberator of Lutenblag’) stands in the centre of the busy main square, holding aloft a sword and what was
for years assumed to be a shield, but has recently turned out — upon closer examination — to be the grille from a Fiat 350.


Many visitors will no doubt have heard of the Gyrorik Art Gallery, an institution that made headlines a few years back when its curator Vbrec Mzecjenj suspected a Rembrandt landscape in the  gallery’s possession
may, in fact, have been  painted over a rare, and far more valuable, self-portrait of the Dutch master. Under the curator’s guidance a painstaking restoration process was commenced in which the outer layer of the painting was delicately stripped away.  The work took almost 16 months and eventually revealed nothing underneath. With the original work destroyed, all that remained of value was the frame which now holds a copy of Mr Mzecjenj’s letter of resignation.

And if that wasn’t enough, my favourite section of the entire book is not related to the actual travel writing but to the short biographies assigned to each of the fictional authors who have created the book. For example:

Trudi Dennes: Trudi has lived and worked in Japan for over 10 years. She now works in the department of classical history at Tokyo University. Trudi has never visited Molvania and was assigned to this guide due to a staffing error.

My only quibble with this very clever and comical book is that it gets a bit “samey” after awhile. It’s definitely not one to read cover to cover, but one to dip in and out of over an extended period of time. It’s perfect light reading to lift your mood and bring a smile to your dial should you need one.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Dead Famous’ by Ben Elton


Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 382 pages; 2002.

Put succinctly, Ben Elton’s Dead Famous is a superb whodunit. It’s also a superb spoof on reality TV — in particular the Big Brother phenomenon — and the way in which the culture of celebrity pervades modern day life.

The 10 contestants on House Arrest are vacuous, self-obsessed 20-somethings who are naively manipulated by the show’s producer to boost ratings and advertising revenues. Before long the contestants all have a reason to hate one another, and then the unimaginable happens:

It’s Day 27 in the House Arrest house and there’s a murder in the toilet.

Despite all the hundreds of cameras recording the housemates 24/7, there is no evidence to show who committed the crime. Consequently, ratings soar as viewers try to determine who is the killer.

Elton’s story sounds like a straightforward plot, but it’s not. He cleverly withholds the identity of the victim until you are at least half way through the novel. This means that while you know someone’s been killed, you begin to analyse every housemate, looking at their potential to kill or be killed. You end up turning the pages at a furious pace and, if you’re like me, you may find yourself reading this book in one sitting.

If you’re a Big Brother fan, you will love this book. It’s clever, wry and funny, but above all it is hugely entertaining.

Author, Book review, Brendan O'Connell, Fiction, general, Ireland, O'Brien Press, Publisher, Setting

‘The Mammy’ by Brendan O’Connell


Fiction – paperback; The O’Brien Press; 174 pages; 1994.

The Mammy is Irish comedian Brendan O’Connell’s first book. It’s a very simple tale about a widow struggling to raise seven children on Dublin’s north side in the late 1960s.

Each chapter is essentially a short story centred on the individual characters that make up Agnes Browne’s family. There are funny little episodes with not-so-funny punchlines, and the language, studded with ‘Dublin-speak’, is very stripped back to the point of being boring.

Aside from these faults, it is a lighthearted story — punctuated with pathos — about a family on the wrong side of the tracks, the strength of friendship in trying times, and the essential goodness of people in a more naive era.

Apparently the book has been made into a film starring Angelica Houston, and while I haven’t seen it, I think it would probably be more entertaining than the novel.