The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

99. The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy

I put down J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man feeling disgusted (mildly), relieved (immensely), thirsty (the Monkey See, Monkey Do syndrome; Beer, anyone?) – and proud. I'd gotten through 348 pages of teenage fantasy run amok. The drinking. The brawls. The women seduced (improbably). The women beaten (gratuitously). Tales of indecent exposure (accidental) and bodily fluids (piss, shit, cum-crusted napkins) as props. It was all just a bit too much. Sure, sticking it to society, with its bothersome obligations – screw the wife, the bills, the kids – can sound like a fun way to live (never-ending parties, rebellious poverty) when you're 18. Just like eating nothing but chocolate for the rest of your life seems like fun, when you're 5. But unless all the banging, bar-hopping and brawls are accompanied by some shrewd insights (or breathtaking prose), it quickly becomes tiresome.

Enter our Ginger Man (as in Run, run, as fast as you can/You can't catch me/I'm the gingerbread man) – Sebastian Dangerfield. World War II is over, and Sebastian, an Irish-American, finds himself studying law at Trinity College, with his British wife, Marion (who he beats) and his daughter, Felicity (who he smothers). A series of stateside expulsions leaves Sebastian estranged (financially and otherwise) from his rich, and ailing, father. Biding his time until his father's death, Sebastian spends his days pawning the chattel from their rental homes, so he can spend his nights in the pub. The Dangerfields move from a house precariously perched on a cliff, after the the back yard crumbles into the crashing sea, to a sodden mass of plywood, where the waste pipe bursts, spewing piss and shit all over Marion. It doesn't take long for Marion to get fed up with Sebastian's infidelity and drinking, and when Sebastian's father sends her a commiserating cheque after she writes to complain about her treatment at the hands of his son, she leaves Sebastian for a respectable house, complete with garden. But Sebastian finds her without difficulty, and against her better judgment, she lets him stay. With one rule. No drinking. Needless to say, it's only a matter a time before Sebastian stumbles home, with the sun, drunk, and Marion packs her bags for her parents' home in Scotland. With his ball-breaking wife and whiny kid gone, Sebastian lines up a series of women willing to feed and clothe him, as he pawns his things (and theirs) for brandy and ale. With landlords and creditors on the hunt, Sebastian convinces a smitten girl, Mary, to send him her life-savings so he can find them a love shack in London. While in London, Sebastian gets the news he has been waiting for ; his father has died. But the joke's on him – his inheritance is to be held in trust for twenty years (until he's 47), at which time, he'll receive an income of $6,000 per year.

And so what's there left for Sebastian Dangerfield to do, but keep on, as he has kept on, with Mary (his conscience got the better of him and he sent for her) and his surprisingly loyal friends, eating, drinking and getting on.

I'll be honest; at first, I wasn't quite sure what to make of this book. The subject matter, admittedly, turned me off, and it obnoxiously defied analysis and classification. To me, the book fell uncomfortably short of the picaresque. Sure, the rambling episodes were funny, and Sebastian Dangerfield, as our hero, was definitely rogue. But where was the social commentary? The satire? This was violence, debauchery and misogyny, merely for its own sake.

But the more I thought about it, the more evident it became to me that that was the point. The Ginger Man is not post-war Ireland's picaresque satire; it's its grotesque carnival.

The grotesque carnival was first described as a literary mode by the great Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin. The literary carnival is best understood, not as a critique of the prevailing social order, but as an outlet for the realities (in a way, the literary carnival is a mode of hyper-realism) that society requires one to suppress. Not surprisingly, carnivalesque works often have an exaggerated focus on the body and its processes (remember all that piss, shit and cum), and shocking and/or uncouth behaviours. The point is not to expose a corrupt or faulty social structure, but to give vent to the realities that socialization requires one to suppress. While the literary carnival allows for the expression of taboos, the grotesque nature of that expression keeps the experience safe. Sebastian Dangerfield is a horrid man. He is lazy, drunk, and horribly self-entitled. He beats his wife, tries to kill his kid, and takes advantage of an untold number of women. But we like him, in spite of ourselves, and enjoying his ridiculous adventures is safe precisely because they're so over-the-top. He's too much to be real. The hyper-realism, like a fun-house mirror, paradoxically, morphs him into a caricature, a fantasy.

Besides the fascination with taboos, the literary carnival is also rife with ambivalence. And I can think of no better way to describe Sebastian. He wants peace from his wife and creditors, yet everything he does is conducive to conflict. He wants to relax, find a bit of quiet in a pint, but he can't refrain from insulting someone and starting a brawl. In the same way, Sebastian wants to be worthy of Trinity's hallowed halls, but attending lectures, studying – it's all too much. He wants wealth, prestige and luxury, but he's incapable of proactively bringing it about.

Another aspect of the literary carnival is a sense of wanting, of incompleteness. Sebastian doesn't change, none of his problems (poverty, estranged wife etc.) are resolved, and none of his fatal flaws (drunkenness, misogyny, self-entitlement) finish him off. And that's the point. The literary carnival is a place where vices exist and are given outlet, and that's all. In the literary carnival, narrative resolution and comeuppance don't belong.

Which brings us, to perhaps the most interesting aspect of this carnival – inversion. Carnivalesque works can be described as topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside down. In this world, the low is high and the high is low. This, obviously, applies to Sebastian himself; a rich aristocrat slumming it, in rags, like a pauper. We also see this in his boorish friend, Percy Clocklan, who somehow rises to immense fortune in London, and with his refined (as refined as anyone can really be in this book) friend, Kenneth O'Keefe, who speaks Latin and Ancient Greek, but lives an impoverished life, celibate and half-starved. We see the inversion in the very subject matter of the book; in the ordinate amount of words devoted to drinking and fucking; in the fact that Sebastian thinks of Gregorian chants during sex or prays for an orgasm. But perhaps the most exciting inversion here – one that makes this book worth reading – is found in the prose itself.

Consider the following passage:

Sebastian entering the morning room. Guilty look at the destroyed desk. Miss Frost putting a great platter of sausages on the table encircled with mahogany. There was a tablecloth, back rashers. Bowl of milk and pile of neatly cut bread. Sugar. Plates clean and sparkling, a knife on one side, fork on the other.

or this:

Receptionist with mouth open. Trickle of spittle twisted on her jaw. An instant's hesitation and fear forced a nervous hand to deliver the white envelope. Dangerfield burning with red eyes. A door opening in the hall. Several bog men, watching from the staircase, slipped hurriedly back to seats, caps over hands. A final announcement from Dangerfield.

The prose in these two passages has the immediacy one expects from close, internal narration, like stream-of-consciousness. However, it is objective, outside the consciousness of any character. Throughout the book, the objective plane is characterized by just such prose (fragmented, frequent use of the present participle). However, when Donleavy does delve into a character's consciousness, he does so with prose like this:

I went to a proper preparatory school, preparing for college. I never felt those schools were good enough for me. I was aloof. Never seeking friends. But my silence was noticed by the teachers and they thought that I was a shifty article and once I heard them telling very rich boys to stay away from me because I wasn't a good influence. Then I got older and bolder. A wanton girl who had pock marks on her face and stubs of hair all up her legs when I thought girls' legs were always nice and smooth, took me into the city from the suburbs where I lived and we drank in bars.
or this:

Her stinking hairy tits. I'm not blaming her for her hair around the nipples. That's all right. I just don't like the British, a sterile genital-less race. Only their animals are interesting. Thank God they have dogs. She wants her life sitting on her fanny in India, whipping the natives. Wants Bond Street. Afternoon tea at Claridges. Lady Gawk tickling her twat with a Chinese fan. I'll break something over that woman's face. The way I lose my dignity is dreadful. Worrying about silly misunderstandings. She can leave. I'll tell her to get out. Stay out.

Sebastian's internal monologues are written in a much more structured prose. This, effectively, gives Sebastian a voice, but it also, when held in contrast with the prose of immediacy that characterizes the objective plane, represents a reversal of literary convention, an inversion of sorts, and is perhaps, the most interesting aspect of this book.


June 14, 2012 at 5:17 AM Anonymous said...

Good try but Dangerfield is not likeable on any level and this book was a massive disappointment. Donleavy can certainly write and raise a smile ("Sunday - a day set aside for despair") but his talent is wasted on this dull,repetitive fare. Try instead John Kennedy Toole's far superior "Confederacy of Dunces".

September 29, 2012 at 12:50 PM Anonymous said...

"Not likeable." What an amateurish thing to say. Such bland criticism from a probable prude who couldn't define rhetoric if their life depended on it.

March 20, 2013 at 11:50 PM JMitch said...

Is the point just to vent about society's demands or is it more about resistance? Certainly the book is a tragedy, for though Dangerfield's rebellion is not always noble we are saddened to realize that it ultimately achieves nothing. That Dangerfield is at last assured survival thanks to Clocklan is a victory of sorts, but he is weakened by the struggle leading up to that point. One of the novel's ironies is all the pages devoted to Dangerfield's verility--which always seemed to me a version of Donleavy's own desired masculinity--when life itself has sterilized Dangerfield, depriving him of his "natural" manhood.

February 23, 2014 at 10:51 AM Unknown said...

The Ginger Man certainly has merit and, published as a banned novel in the 1950's, exerted some influence on writers who found their voice in the late 1950's and 1960's including Jack Keroauc and, later, Frederick Exley ("A Fan's Notes). Of course, it is also notable that those writers tend to be sophomoric and rather obsessively adolescent males scoffing at order and not really finding life values to replace it. This then initiates a long, thirty year literary arc that ultimately forms a kind of period literature which ceases to be relevant as the effected generations dies out, ages and/or moves on to more pressing concerns. That said, Donleavy's ear is often pitch-perfect, achieving power its as music even as it fails to offer useful or enduring insight. J.Byrd

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