The Ginger Man was JP Donleavyâ€™s first novel and his best, as fresh now as the day on which it was published in 1955. Donleavy, who has died aged 91, was much under the influence of James Joyce at the time, and The Ginger Man is a dense book, with a stream-of-consciousness narrative that dips in and out of the first and third persons. But the wit and invention soon take hold. It chronicles the adventures, in love and liquor, of a likable rake, Sebastian Dangerfield (based on Donleavyâ€™s friend Gainor Crist, who read it with great pleasure, never realising he was the model for the hero).
A score of publishers in Britain and the US turned down the novel in one or other of its early drafts. The breakthrough came when sections were published in the Manchester Guardian, which described the book as a â€œcomic triumphâ€. Then Brendan Behan tipped Donleavy off about a small publisher of English-language books in Paris, which had Samuel Beckett on its list, and Donleavy packed off his sheaf of pasted-together pages to Olympia Press, unaware that, although they did indeed publish Beckett, the main thrust of the business was pornography.
It is not altogether fair to Olympiaâ€™s proprietor, Maurice Girodias, to say that he accepted The Ginger Man because of its Rabelaisian erotic content. Even at the time â€“ the novel was submitted in 1954 and published the following year â€“ The Ginger Man could hardly have been mistaken for a dirty book (unlike, say, Lolita, which Girodias also published). It was the avant garde element in Donleavy that aroused Girodias, but the author himself refused to see it that way.
In his 1994 memoir, The History of The Ginger Man, he described his reaction on receiving his first advance copy of the novel and finding a list of pornographic titles advertised on its endpaper: â€œI smashed my fist upon its green cover format, published as it was in the pseudonymous and pornographic Travellerâ€™s Companion Series, and I declared aloud, â€˜If itâ€™s the last thing I ever do, I will avenge this book.â€™â€
Which he did, engaging in a legal battle that was finally resolved when Donleavy took over the Olympia Press and wound it up. The Ginger Man was republished in Britain, in a slightly abridged edition, in 1956, but the unexpurgated text would have to wait another seven years until it came out as a Corgi paperback.
Donleavy was not a man with whom to pick a fight. He had studied boxing, and The History of The Ginger Man contained many accounts of street brawls, in which Donleavy was invariably the victor. One story involved the novelist Ernest GÃ©bler, the writer Edna Oâ€™Brienâ€™s first husband, whom Donleavy apparently rescued from a scrap with seven Irishmen: â€œIt was positively delicious to land hooks, bolos and uppercuts into this pack of persecutors.â€
Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in the Bronx, James Patrick Donleavy was the son of immigrants from Ireland, Margaret and Patrick Donleavy. His father was apt to say of the home country, â€œthey havenâ€™t got a pot to piss inâ€, but Donleavy claimed nevertheless that his upbringing instilled â€œthe subtlety of Europeâ€ in him. His mother was from a wealthy background, and Donleavy remained acutely class-conscious throughout his life. A personâ€™s dress, or choice of university, told Donleavy much of what he wanted to know about them. Social mobility is the mainspring of much of his fiction.
Donleavy arrived in Dublin to study bacteriology at Trinity College in 1946. His first short story, A Party on Saturday Afternoon, was published in 1950 in the Dublin little magazine Envoy, which also featured Beckett and Behan. He crossed the sea to London a few years later, clutching the early drafts of The Ginger Man, and began to frequent writersâ€™ pubs such as the George in Great Portland Street, popular among BBC journalists from nearby Broadcasting House. One acquaintance from those days recalled Donleavy as a powerful personality in a group that might have included the drama producer John Gibson, the journalist Murray Sayle, and Behan, â€œquietly dominating the scene, without having to speak muchâ€.
The Ginger Man affair left Donleavy with a lifelong fascination for the slow shiftings of the law. Friends of later years who visited the house at Levington Park, near Mullingar, County Westmeath, where he lived from 1972, were apt to be struck by bookshelves bearing few books other than legal tomes. â€œWriters are brilliant at law,â€ Donleavy said, â€œnaturals. They use words, and they can take those words and ruin you.â€
In his memoir, he revealed his method for dealing with a legal adversary: say as little as possible. â€œOnly for the moment am I saying nothingâ€ was his motto. The hero of his highly acclaimed second novel, A Singular Man (1963), who has problems not unlike those of the proprietor of the Olympia Press, receives such a letter on the first page.
Donleavy published 13 novels, including The Saddest Summer of Samuel S (1966), The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968) and The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (1977). None achieved the success of The Ginger Man. As his taste in titles suggests, Donleavy tended to rely on formula. One of the charming tricks of The Ginger Man is to have each chapter end with a ditty (â€œGodâ€™s mercy / On the wild / Ginger Manâ€), but as it was repeated in book after book, it became an affectation.
There was something cultish about Donleavyâ€™s reputation. He stood apart from his American contemporaries â€” John Updike, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin. One came to expect variety in the output of those writers, while Donleavy stood by the goose that laid the golden egg. At one stage, he was linked to the Angry Young Men, and even, by association, to the Beats, but in reality he had little in common with either group. Donleavyâ€™s heroes use accent and breeding to get what they want, which is often wealth and women; and when they have those, they use them to take a further step upwards. The comedy of the books comes from the obstacles encountered along the way, but there is usually someone on a lower rung to take a hefty kick at.
A certain bitterness at lack of continuing success set in. Donleavy became something of a recluse, and he was not unaware that the writer who does that is in danger of running out of material. There are exceptions (Beckett is one), but Donleavy was not among them. Some of his work is quite thin. A novella published in 1997, The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms, was snobbish and lascivious. Donleavy took the opportunity to aim a hook, bolo or uppercut into what by then seemed a different â€œpack of persecutorsâ€, his more successful literary colleagues, â€œon-the-scene male novelists â€¦ merely a bunch of repressed homosexualists using their pricks as pensâ€.
He also hit out at what he saw as pernicious political correctness, especially feminism. He was proud of the fact that the novels featuring his foul-mouthed theatrical impresario Schultz were â€œvery anti-feministâ€. He deplored the censorious aspects of feminism, and at public readings could be amusing on the subject, but there was a crustiness about it as well, an out-of-date desire to see women as objects of beauty or else cunning foxes.
Donleavyâ€™s writing methods were singular, too. He wrote on separate sheets of paper, sometimes just a few words on each, which were then pasted together to form a screed about 10 metres long. He then made notes and revisions on different sheets, which were pasted on to the first lot, and so on. The draft of a chapter could thus run the entire length of a room. A library at Levington Park was devoted to his manuscripts.
In 1968 Donleavy had become an Irish citizen. This was less the product of a romantic longing to re-establish roots, as he candidly admitted, than a purely practical desire to simplify his tax problems. By the end of the 1960s, he was at the height of his financial success. He had three houses in London and one in New York, and other obligations resulting from the failure of his first marriage, to Valerie Heron, with whom he had two children.
He wrote a book about Ireland (called, with that bedevilling gimmickry, A Singular Country, 1989) and was proud of his estate in County Westmeath, but he was not greatly interested in the country or its inhabitants. The Ginger Man had been banned in Ireland and continued to be resented for many years afterwards, and Donleavy could not forget the slight. He claimed he was more sought after by Americans for his views on the country than any native, even though he knew little about the place. â€œI read the Daily Telegraph and I may as well be living in Timbuktu for all the number of times I go outside those gates,â€ he told one visitor.
Levington Park was a peculiar place, grand and run-down at the same time. There was a grand piano in the living room beside piles of tatty cushions and old newspapers. Donleavy kept up a smouldering peat fire as he regaled guests with tales of wily publishers and beautiful women. In later years he employed the services of a housekeeper and secretary. The latter worked in a separate wing of the house and often the two did not see one another for days. When I visited him there in 2004, we drove to Lough Owel, a mile away â€“ all the land was his â€“ and took a walk along the shore. Donleavy was a charming host. I was there to interview him and, having expected to occupy two hours of his time, spent half a day with him. As we drove to a little pub in the hills, he claimed not to have been outside his own gates for two weeks.
When he emerged from his solitude, Donleavy had the power to seduce an audience. He read his work â€“ sometimes without relying on a text â€“ with precise amounts of intimacy and aloofness, wrapped around with mischievous humour. His fondness for correctness and proper manners led him to write a witty, self-mocking book on the subject, The Unexpurgated Code (1975).
He was also an enthusiastic painter. He exhibited and reckoned he had sold hundreds of pictures. Although he claimed that his personal favourite among his novels was A Singular Man, there is no doubting his gratitude to The Ginger Man. It sold many millions of copies (the Irish Times estimates 50m), and was made into a successful play in 1959, staged in the West End of London and in Dublin, with Richard Harris in the title role, but while the film rights were optioned many times (most recently for a version starring Johnny Depp), plans came to nothing.
Donleavy could never be described as a one-book writer, but certain of his later books â€“ Are You Listening, Rabbi LÃ¶w (1987), for example, and De Alfonce Tennis (1984) â€“ will be unfamiliar to many readers, even by name. The author had the final say in the long battle with the Olympia Press, but perhaps the wily French publisherâ€™s comment should be added as a postscript (and as a warning to any writer tempted to get involved in litigation): â€œYou may wonder,â€ Girodias said, â€œwhy Donleavy never turned out to be the writer everyone expected him to be when he wrote The Ginger Man. The reason is simple. He spent his life in legal action with me.â€
After the end of his marriage to Valerie, Donleavy married Mary Wilson Price, from whom he later separated. He is survived by his son, Philip, and daughter, Karen, from his first marriage, and by his sister, Mary Rita.
â€¢ James Patrick Donleavy, writer, born 23 April 1926; died 11 September 2017