The Funniest Irish Novel

James Joyce might have written the greatest Irish novel, but J. P. Donleavy certainly wrote the funniest, says Allen Barra in his review of this outrageous classic. Plus, Mark Salter's literary tour of Ireland

03.16.10 11:36 PM ET

J.P Donleavy's The Ginger Man, the funniest novel in the English language since Evelyn Waugh and the wildest since Flann O'Brien went on the prowl, is being reprinted, with an introduction by Jay McInerney, by Grove Press 55 years after its publication, and not a minute too soon. Any time The Ginger Man is difficult to find, the degree of lusty, audacious black humor in English language literature drops to an alarmingly low level. Not that the most popular cult novel of post-World War II American (or Irish-American, if you prefer) letters has ever been in danger of going away.

Donleavy's first and most enduring work has sold in the millions and been translated into at least two dozen languages, acquiring such diverse fans as Norman Mailer and V.S. Naipaul, who described it as "comic, dirty, and delightful," and making its protagonist, Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, the most unlikely of modern literary icons. (Ever year or so, there are rumors it will finally be made into a film; the most recent star to have his name connected with the project is Johnny Depp.)

The Ginger Man snuck in at No. 99 on the Modern Library's Best 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century; one can almost hear Dangerfield's snicker at having finished just ahead of Booth Tarkington's starched-collar museum piece, The Magnificent Ambersons.

James Patrick Donleavy—either "Mike" or "Paddy" to his friends, according to which Dublin bookseller you talk to—was born in Brooklyn in 1926 to Irish immigrant parents and raised in the Bronx. He has lived in Ireland since 1972. In between, he was expelled from Fordham Prep for holding a fraternity meeting in a saloon (it was their first and last meeting), cut grass at Woodlawn Cemetery near Herman Melville's grave, boxed former middleweight champion ("Raging Bull") Jake LaMotta at the New York Athletic Club, served a stint in the Navy, and attended Trinity College Dublin on the GI Bill, where he began painting. Inspired by the antics of a fellow American student named Gainor Crist, he turned to fiction; the title of his first book, though uncredited, is believed to be taken from a letter written by Jack Yeats in 1906—"I believe that all fine pictures, and fine literature too, to be fine must have some of the living ginger of Life in them."

And there is no lack of ginger in The Ginger Man. In a short but perceptive review written for Esquire three years after the book's publication, Dorothy Parker called The Ginger Man "Lusty, violent, wildly funny... a rigadoon of rascality." Correctly dismissing an oft-made comparison between Donleavy and Henry Miller, she came up with two intriguing possible stepfathers for The Ginger Man: Beckett's Murphy, or at least what that novel "might have been if Mr. Beckett hadn't gone and got himself all snagged up in convoluted writing," and Joyce Cary's fine novel The Horse's Mouth, "though Mr. Donleavy's Sebastian Dangerfield makes Joyce Cary's scoundrel look like the teacher's pet."

Dorothy Parker thought "It will be many a day before I come upon a book anywhere near as brilliant as The Ginger Man."

The Joyce Cary comparison is especially valid, though Cary's Gulley Jimson is an artist, a painter like Donleavy himself, while Sebastian Dangerfield aspires to nothing more than a cushy job with Lloyd's of London that would set him up in upper-middle-class comfort—a country house, perhaps with a nice stable—without requiring much imagination or brain power. How deliciously ironic that the creation of Sebastian would help Donleavy to live in Anglo-Irish comfort at Levington Park, a country manor in County Westmeath built by a Sir Richard Leving in 1740 where James Joyce once spent the night. The walls are adorned by Donleavy's own paintings, judged by Enrique Juncosa, director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, to be "wildly funny, being sometimes dirty, violent, satirical, charming or even lyrical, characteristics that have been given to his literary style. His works are a very energetic celebrating of humor and life, and manage to create some analysis of the human condition."

Talk of the human condition might seem a bit lofty in connection with a novel whose main character puts his wife on the verge of breakdown and spends his days and nights in the back streets of Dublin—generally in the company of characters with names such as Tune Mularchy—in pursuit of, in no particular order, money, booze, and sex. That Sebastian isn't a poet or painter makes him even more contemptible as his selfishness and carelessness aren't mitigated by the end result of art; nor, to Sebastian's credit, does he try to placate us with any self-serving doubletalk of the kind offered by the protagonists created of, say, Henry Miller.

A great many fans can also quote the book's opening lines. "Today a rare sun of spring. And horse carts clanging to the quays down Tara Street and the shoeless white faced kids screaming." Perfect. Hemingway meets Joyce—the latter of whom might approve of Donleavy's constant shifts in tense and person and repeated use of interior monologue while blushing at some of the content: "Mary sits on the edge of the bed. I lean back here watching. You've got big ones. Use them as a pillow. I am the hot ticket to eternity riding the melted rails in all directions."

Dorothy Parker thought "It will be many a day before I come upon a book anywhere near as brilliant as The Ginger Man . And when I do, I think it will be written by Mr. Donleavy." I cannot believe that Donleavy didn't meet Parker's expectations in nearly 20 subsequent volumes of fiction (particularly A Singular Man and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B), nonfiction (including The History of The Ginger Man, a vivid account of the legal wrangles and litigation that surrounded the early years of the novel), and plays (Richard Harris played Sebastian in a 1959 stage adaptation of The Ginger Man in London that was closed by the theater owner after only three performances when Donleavy refused to make cuts demanded by the Archbishop of Dublin).

Still, The Ginger Man remains the Donleavy book you will want to read first, no doubt followed quickly by The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners, which acts as a guide to understanding his characters' mind-set. (Sample: Upon being exorcised, "Do not allow yourself to be approached by quacks or charlatans. Wear a clean change of undergarments and have a suitable outfit ready to sport as a certified angelic being.") And on the proper suicide note: "Final letters should be brief, unapologetic and neither sad nor glad... 'No comment' is proper."

All of Donleavy's books are indescribably funny, but if The Ginger Man lingers most in one's memory, it's because it also partakes of an ineffable sadness. While you're laughing at one page, you cannot forget that on the previous one Sebastian Dangerfield left his baby starving. While he seems the greatest companion in the world to be raising the wrists with at your local pub, you can't shake the feeling of wanton waste—a waste of talent, intelligence, energy, and charm.

There is a sadness, too, in Sebastian's environment, a softer, simpler Dublin now vanished, a city of rough grace embraced by an American who, despite his misgivings, loved it as only an American could. The Ginger Man is a rowdy, rousing ballad for the Sebastian Dangerfield that everyone of us has known, loved, and lost.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.