from The Ginger Man to Fairy Tales of New York, J. P. Donleavy has traced a wily, subterranean trail from joy to ambivalence, from sensual and sensuous pleasure to partial withdrawal, from anarchy to compromise. Donleavy’s first book, published in 1958, announced a rare, rich, disciplined perception, a strict yet supple prose style, fluid with echoes of Yeats, Marvell, Donne, even Chaucer. Donleavy chose the hardest of all narrative forms—the first person present, and forged as his narrative persona perhaps the only recent fictional hero we can fully accept, Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, the ginger man.
At the centre of Sebastian’s life are the joys he knows and feels and cares totally for and will never compromise: the joy of woman’s flesh, the joy of love-making, the joy of liquor, the joy of friendship with the very few people who have not betrayed him. Around this core cluster Sebastian’s secondary pleasures; fine clothes, good homes and furnishings, sleek cars, people, new mornings in fresh streets, fog, the feel and smell and taste and touch of almost anything. Donleavy’s book is the painful, hilarious oddysey of a man completely in harmony with his senses and his feelings, trying to keep both whole and faithful to himself in our fragmenting world.
A cold list of Sebastian’s actions would qualify him as bastard in anybody’s book. He swindles a shopkeeper in the opening chapter, goes on to beat his wife, maltreat his kid, cheat countless shopkeepers and publicans, ruin a rented house after pawning all the movable furnishings, start riots in pubs, steal a bicycle, sleep with at least six women, and beat the one he (possibly) loves. No question of remorse, misguided actions, temporary madness. Sebastian is cold-bloodedly ruthless; his fights are arbitrary but his seduction of his thirty-four year old Catholic boarder, Miss Lily Frost, is so minutely calculated that even Sebastian feels a twinge of pity as her hands tighten on his wrist, pulling him up and into her bed.
“To touch Miss Frost seems safe and sad. Because I guess I pull her into my own pit.”
Sebastian cares about himself, and the few people who care about themselves with similar strength and devotion, so that nothing like tact or consideration or trust or responsibility interferes. He permits no concessions to any morality and has learned to imprison the scret name of the God that rules our lives—Guilt. So he is free. What limits him is no inner stricture of will or doctrine, no fear or inhibition, but only the boundary-defining prohibitions of the outside world. Not Arthur Seaton’s outside world, the jungle where “they” are always out to get you, and cunning, the subversion of “their” machinery so that it works for you, means a possible salvation —in Dangerfield’s world “they” are not the aristocracy (to which he spiritually belongs), not the bosses, the managers, the executives, the officials. “They” are the little people, landlords and publicans and laundry-girls and old-age pensioners and neighbours who keep watch behind the curtains, and in Dangerfield’s canon they stand convicted of the only mortal sin—meanness of spirit. How can a man with only joy in his heart live inside the meanness of this world? This is Dangerfield’s question, and the pages of The Ginger Man record his answer; through pain, sadness, anger and fear, through constant exercise of wit, cunning, and agile feet, through outrageous lies and cheats and monstrous cruelty.
Sebastian is no picaresque hero, no man of the people, no working-class hero bursting with vitality, rampaging through a debilitated, enervated upper-class world, inspiring warmth and desire through his earthy lustiness. Sebastian is a total aristocrat. Everyone has his place, the lower orders must be kept down. His looks and his bearing reinforce his self-image; many of his swindles work because he carries the hauteur off so well. All men are neither equal nor brothers nor anything else for Sebastian; his quarrel is not with the world but with the system of apportionment that left him penniless and scrabbling.
But not despairing. Never despairing. Dangerfield comes close, but even in his lowest moments, a slice of humorous perception, the play of his predicament or the look on his adversary’s face or the tonal quality of the paving-stones, comes filtering up through his senses, and we know the ginger man is still whole.