One of my favorite novels of all time or any time is The Ginger Man, by J. P. Donleavy. It’s the story of Sebastian Dangerfield and his wild days and ways in Dublin, taking classes at Trinity, whoring and drinking and pawning everything in sight to afford the drink and the whoring, avoiding his tenacious landlord and the authorities in general, in general putting the g in rogue and fighting all that is holy and stiflingly good. It’s easily one of the most unforgettable novels in the English language, with Dangerfield being one of its most memorable characters. The protagonist was based in part on a good friend of Donleavy’s, Gainor Stephen Crist, though it’s tempting to read into that character a bit of the author and his own biography as well.
The prose is magnificent. Almost immediately the reader senses he or she is in the presence of greatness. It is quite near the level of James Joyce, as far as the pure beauty and quality of the writing, and it’s more fun to read than Ulysses. Less work. More accessible. It was Donleavy’s first novel and he was able to finally publish it in 1955, after being turned down as often as Joyce was. The Ginger Man, like Ulysses, immediately ran afoul of the authorities and was thought of as pornography and published as such, much to the chagrin of its author. When I first read this masterpiece in the 1980s, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. Pornography? They have got to be kidding. Have read it three more times since then and still can’t believe it. As the young kids used to say, “Get a life!” That’s what those authorities back then needed to do.
Now, while we have grown up quite a bit since then when it comes to our handling of sex, “blasphemy” and “heretical” views in literature, we have lost our patience for other aspects of the past. Often rightfully so. Dangerfield will come across as a bit of a beast toward women, and that can’t be excused, but it should also be put into context. It’s a story, a fiction, and no endorsement by the author of Dangerfield’s boorish behavior. Donleavy presents a vivid tableau and allows the reader to be critical of the behavior — as they should — or ignore it. The world of the book is presented with high contrast, and that allows joy, pain, sorry, empathy and scorn to emerge. But it begins and ends with Dangerfield, with his larger than life presence, his legendary exploits, his Wildean wit. We can forgive much when we see the world through the eyes of the characters involved. The joy of reading the book is to take that wild ride with them.