Monday, June 21, 2010

The Ginger Man (J.P. Donleavy) (10.0/10.0)

The Ginger Man is perhaps the most eloquent portrait of debauchery ever painted in the English language. And it may just be the greatest American novel that no one has ever heard of. I can only barely read in any language other than English, so I don’t really know what they have to say about hedonism. But it’s hard to imagine anyone weaving an uglier tale in more beautiful language.
Sebastian Dangerfield is a bad man and behaves accordingly. Shortly after World War II, he finds himself studying at the prestigious Trinity University in Dublin, Ireland. Having squandered his GI Bill money and being miserably wedded with child, he does what any rotten human would do: he abandons his dependants and embarks on a journey of decadent self-indulgence.

Yet, he is a strangely-compelling character who appears more principled in his wickedness than perhaps even the Pope in his righteousness. He is a wastrel of the highest order who at first appalls but soon has the reader weeping in sympathy as his uncompromising mission to find beauty in this life—on his own gluttonous and lusty terms, of course—is revealed.

He takes advantage of women, he steals, he lies, he drinks too much, and he possesses every conceivable carnal vice. He is a person of huge appetites that devours life in breathtaking gulps and gives nothing in return. Yet to a man like Dangerfield these imperfections are what make him beautiful and somewhere along the line Dunleavy seduces us into sympathizing with this with rotten character; more than just sympathize, Dunleavy even brings us to champion this swine for some of the very same reasons we find him so distasteful at beginning of our voyage.

With such a beautiful gift of verse many readers may wonder why J. P. Donleavy didn’t devote his powers to do good. Rather than chronicling a beast of a man on his hilarious journey to purgatory, why not use his gift to pen a serious and profound piece—perhaps the next Great American Novel some might ask.

Well, in my mind he has. And that book is The Ginger Man.


  1. Isn't Dunleavy Irish? Making it an Irish -- and not American -- novel?

  2. It's a fair point. Donleavy was born in New York and raised in the U.S.--he even served in WWII--but he spent most of his adult life in Ireland and (I believe) lives there now. And his prose does read much more Irish than American. What do you think? Does an expat still count in terms of a nation's body of literature? Is Nabokov considered a Russian novelist or an American novelist? Does the language that the author writes in have any bearing?

  3. It really is an interesting question. Obviously, something more than a birth certificate is required to be part of a nation's canon. Like you said, although Donleavy is American born, there is something about his sensibility that is distinctly Irish.

    On the other side of that coin, there is Colum McCann, Irish born, living in America, and Let the Great World Spin is without a doubt an American, (a New York, actually) book.

    I never considered Nabokov a Russian writer; not because he wrote in English, but because his sensibility never felt Russian to me. I know, it's vague -- and perhaps ridiculous -- to talk of a national sensibility in this day and age, but I don't know how else to describe it.

    Like Joseph Conrad -- he was Polish, but his novels can't be read as anything but British.

    I am Canadian, and I think to say someone is a "Great Canadian" writer is different than saying someone is a great writer, who happens to be Canadian. For example, Michael Ondaatje is a great writer, and although he has written books set in and about Canada (In the Skin of a Lion), I wouldn't think of him as a "Great Canadian" writer, like Alice Munro or Margaret Laurence or L.M. Montgomery. His sensibility is transnational for me, whereas Munro's sensibility is unmistakeably Canadian.

    Does that make sense?

    PS. I was "Anonymous" above: I misselected in the drop-down menu by accident.

  4. In the end, I think we totally agree. To the extent we can divide great writers into national camps, it's most often style that makes the difference. And so we may have to conclude, as you say, that Donleavy has written the Great Irish Novel, rather than the Great American Novel.

    BTW, this is the second reference to McCann's Let the Great World Spin that I've come across today. Is it worth a read?

  5. I really liked your review of this book, although it was one of my least favorite books on the Modern Library list (maybe it's because I'm female!). I never quite felt sympathy for Sebastian, but you have to give props to Donleavy for 'doing the thing right' and making his character so consistently and thoroughly debased. I don't think I would have bought it if Donleavy decided to turn him into a good guy just for the sake of a happy ending. :)

  6. McCann's "Let the Great World Spin" is an excellent read. A collection of short stories, all set in NY, with characters and events appearing minimally (or in passing) throughout the collection. A couple of the stories approach brilliant in their writing. Well worth the read.

  7. While i agree with you both, Patrick and Devon, that there is something about some of Donleavy's novels that smacks of the Irish, I have met him and not only does he not come across as very Irish, he also claims he still feels American. He never actually associated with the Irish all that much, and has never had an uncomplicatedly warm relationship with them. I think in the novels set in Ireland, with Irish characters, he ventriloquizes the Irish voice perfectly, but in his more American novels, it is the American sensibility that comes through. Either we, he is certainly somewhere between the two, and i think this fact is part of the reason he has to a certain extent been left out of both national canons.

  8. I am not enjoying this book, but your review is encouraging me to persevere. I agree with SocrMom78 - maybe it's because I am a female reader - but I do not find the misogynous, selfish, irresponsible protagonist in the least bit funny or appealing. It's also depressing that many of the books on the Modern Library Top 100 have "heroes" who treat women as subhuman. Is that really what it takes to make a book transcend time and become a classic?

    1. thanks for the comments SCCJackie. there are many reasons to love this book, but Sebastian's treatment of women is certainly not one of them. while Dunleavy is no champion of women, throughout his writing, we appreciate that he creates female characters that are at least multi-dimensional and able to stand on their own two feet; as opposed to so many of the books on the Top 100 that portray women as a needy,dependent stereotype. i hope you will stick with this book, and keep in mind that Sebastian is a pig, and as such, his treatment of others -male or female- is often beastly!