John Gardner famously said that all novels have one of two plots: Someone goes on a trip, or a stranger comes to town. The writer Randall Kenan has said that all novels have one of three plots: Cinderella (in which you go on a trip), Goldilocks (a stranger comes into your house), or Cain and Abel (someone in your house tries to kill you).
The longer fictions of J. P. Donleavy all have the same plot, nicely summarized in his first novel The Ginger Man. Boil his eleven novels and two novellas down to a paragraph and you’d get the following: “I guess all I want out of this life is a decent fire in the grate, a rug on the floor and a comfortable chair in which to sit and read. And just a few quid I don’t have to slave for and mix with people with money… But Jesus, when you don’t have any money, the problem is food. When you have money, it’s sex. When you have both it’s health, you worry about getting rupture or something. If everything is simply jake then you’re frightened of death.” The hopeful thing about this speech is that it’s spoken by Kenneth O’Keefe, a virgin, poor, and frequently cold and hungry student at Trinity College in Dublin. Perhaps actually having sex or getting rich or warming yourself by a fire provides some satisfaction.
Most of Donleavy’s heroes go from riches to rags to riches with dizzying speed, if not the ingenuity shown by Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man. A law student who spends a lot of time going chug chug in pubs, Sebastian depends on his wife’s wealthy father to support her and their baby girl. Challenged by Kenneth to “pop down with that English accent of yours and get some credit” at a grocery store, Sebastian responds by taking an axe to a blue blanket that seems to be one of his family’s few valuable possessions. But wound around his neck, a scrap becomes a scarf in Trinity’s rowing blue—the only letter of credit Sebastian needs.
With one thing to say, why not write just one novel? First published in 1955 by the pornography imprint of Marcus Girodias’s Olympia Press—stamping the book as even dirtier than Lolita, published that year by Olympia’s literary imprint—The Ginger Man won Donleavy fame, fortune, and comparisons to Nabokov and Joyce. But what if Nabokov went on to write about the nymphets of Lambert Lambert and Otto Otto? What if Joyce went on to tell the story of The Odyssey through Leopold Bloom’s adventures on June 17, 1904, the day after Ulysses?
Or why not write one long novel? Because it might never end. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu could be described as a novel by and about a man who goes on a trip while physically in bed—where Proust died before editing the final volume. Kafka’s longer works, The Castle and The Trial, resist closure every step of the way. Characters weigh and often pursue every course of action available, often in alternate scenes cut by Kafka or by his editors after his death, producing stories that expand horizontally like Choose Your Own Adventure books—beyond the covers of the copy in your hands to be continued in different editions of the book.
Writing about your great book is another route. Donleavy turned The Ginger Man into a play whose hostile reception he then chronicled in his essay “What They Did in Dublin with The Ginger Man.” He turned it into a screenplay which remains unproduced. His autobiography The History of The Ginger Man casts the novel itself as hero in Donleavy’s fifteen-year legal battle to regain publication rights from Girodias. “Authors make wonderful lawyers,” Donleavy has said, which aptly characterizes his ultimate victory and seizure of Olympia Press, and is reflected in the threatening letters from solicitors that punctuate his novels. Girodias blamed the case for distracting Donleavy and keeping him from writing something better than The Ginger Man.
Donleavy’s own story involves going on a trip and never coming back. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, he served in the Navy during World War II, went to Trinity on the G.I. Bill, was expelled, stayed for good, and became an Irish citizen. A boxer and a painter whose male protagonists never lose a fight but never pick up a brush, Donleavy was told that his paintings could not be shown in galleries unless he was famous. Author photographs show a tall, strapping fellow book by book stooping and acquiring a walking stick, a bigger overcoat, a thicker, whiter beard, and coming to resemble an Edward Gorey sketch. Indeed, with characters named Balthazar B, Darcy Dancer, Howard How, Jocelyn Jones, Kelly Kelly, Lulu Lullabyebaby, the Mental Marquis, O’Kelly’O, Ronald Ronald, and Samuel S, Donleavy’s fiction might also be read as an epic version of Gorey’s brilliant abecedary The Gashlycrumb Tinies, in which children named for each letter of the alphabet die twenty-six different deaths. The first English edition of his novel Schultz has a drawing of Donleavy with a big walking stick on the back, a drawing of Schultz with a black eye and his trousers around his ankles on the front. Donleavy has become one of his own characters.
Unlike Donleavy, who in middle age called himself a “comfortably burned out volcano,” his male heroes drink and rut and then drink and rut some more without ever slowing down. Are such lives worth reading about? Sebastian’s is because Donleavy has as many words for alcohol as Sebastian has drinks: bottle, booze, drink, double, pint, refreshment, one, another, lash, lashings, a really big lash of Gold Label. Biggest and best of all are the “Guinness boats going chug chug” as Sebastian sits between two barrels in a pub. In Donleavy’s Dublin the Guinness flows so freely that the boats themselves are drinking and telling you to do the same.
Donleavy is also a genius at describing food—adding real drama and instilling genuine sorrow in the reader when a clumsy servant drops a tray of rashers and sausages before they’ve been described. A groom’s passion for beer is such that he defies gravity and manages to down pints while standing on his head. A description of the arms of men coming home for dinner as “light with a few sausages” suggests that appetite, not eating, is what gives them strength. And while Donleavy’s heroes may have infinite appetites, the effect is quite comical when they dominate vegetables, from teeth tearing into “defenceless mounds of creamed spinach” to peas “which don’t stand a chance between the choppers.”
Like William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say,” a poem which poses as a note on an icebox door, many of the short poems that end chapters in The Ginger Man exist in the story, too, as songs, postcards, an epitaph on a tombstone, as a note on the stove telling Sebastian that his wife and child are gone. Sebastian’s first poem (and the best of the hundreds in all of Donleavydom) appears after he reads his wife’s note. “I think Marion thinks mine too small.
But I know
You may have left me but I have a big penis, is about the size of Sebastian’s attitude towards his marriage and women generally. Penis size and behavior vary little from one Donleavy hero to the next. All are large, all pushing trousers “out a mile” or “up like a tent” every few pages, all falling out or threatening the faulty zippers and snaps, which are also standard issue. As a shape poem dangling in the middle of the page, the above suggests that Sebastian’s is not so big, or that a big penis is not so important—perhaps that any and all descriptions of sex are woefully inadequate when compared to sex.
Nicholas Mosley writes that Donleavy’s poems “seem to be distillations, like pearls or tears, of the stresses and strains that have gone before. They seem to say—In life there is a lot of dross, yes; there are also small bits of gold and diamond which, if you find them, are worth more than all the rest put together.” Sebastian’s poems are rebuttals to Marion’s note, and, as Mosley suggests, attempts to spin a bit of gold from the dross of his life. I first read The Ginger Man in high school and did not understand why Sebastian’s seduction of his boarder Lilly Frost veers into an increasingly elaborate fantasy involving farm animals, creationism, and finally gardening (“Dig it all up and lace it liberally with lime and phosphates with mounds of kelp mixed with ould bones and guts laced with dead leaves all of it rotting graciously making a nice gooey compost.”) until Donleavy spells out:
“Lilly, why did you want me to do it this way?”
“O Mr. Dangerfield, it’s so much less of a sin.”
At his best, Donleavy goes from highbrow to low to high so fast that you forget which is which.
In the Darcy Dancer Trilogy, which includes The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (1977), Leila (1983), and the dispiritingly titled That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman (1990), the higher a character’s status the worse their behavior. Edna Annie, the elderly washerwoman forever toiling in the basement, is described as a saint; Sexton the gardener says that “never once did his prick ever trouble his conscience, as it did many the blackguard he knew”; the lovely servant Leila is banished to the basement for catching master Darcy’s eye first by Crooks, then by herself for fear of what will happen if she and Darcy fall in love; fellow servant Mollie Dingbats is klutzy and more concerned with getting herself than Darcy’s breakfast into his bed (and Darcy rejects her as a fortune-hunter after they do have sex); Crooks terrorizes junior staff, is terrorized by Darcy’s guests, and speaks to Darcy’s mother as if she is still alive (a dead mother being even more lowly and saintly than a washerwoman); Darcy’s departed daddy is a degenerate gambler; Darcy’s two prim sisters used to suffocate him in his crib and trick him into thinking his mother had died (so that when she really dies, Darcy does not react); upper-class neighbors and guests are greedy, gluttonous, and keen on having sex with anything with legs; in a nice twist a neighbor known as the Mental Marquis cares so little for social mores that, unlike Darcy, he seduces Leila and makes her his Marchioness.
A stranger in his own home, Darcy becomes sexually involved with socially inferior older women—first his servant Miss von B, who claims to be exiled German royalty, then a bohemian painter who takes matters into her own hands when Darcy’s erection ruins the line of his portrait in progress. Before snatching Leila out from under Darcy’s nose, the Mental Marquis says, “You put your old what for up their well meant for and you do your best done for and then you want to be immediately a mile away shooting snipe.” And yet Darcy’s love for nature is equally fickle. Jockeying with a woman to be the first through a hole in a hedge—beyond which there is a ditch—Darcy tricks her into jumping through and, so, killing her horse. On a later hunt the two fornicate in a bog, Darcy spurring her with her crop. Putting his what for up a well meant for may make Darcy want to be immediately a mile away; alone he sees female ghosts haunting his estate. In Leila the image of a girl standing on a stone bridge turns out to be the ghost of a girl who died falling from a horse. In That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman the ghost turns out to be Leila come to gaze at her beloved Darcy from afar—a variation on the ghost in the attic in Jane Eyre turning out to be Rutherford’s insane wife.
What, then, is a gentleman? On the train to Dublin, the difference between first- and third-class passengers is that the former may choose not to help load cattle onto the train. On a phonetic level, the title The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman suggests that a gentleman is someone who can resist or disrupt the repetition of a sound, in this case the utterance of the letter D. At a boarding school where boys fight to be Supreme number one, Supreme number two, and so on, bullying and buggering each other and having access to a “personal female slut” accordingly, Darcy “would like nothing better than to be nothing in supreme here,” suggesting that a gentleman is someone who rejects class (when it suits him). Crooks’s greatest service is to make Darcy and his guests at least sound like gentlemen. The estate may be on the verge of collapse, with water coming through the roof, servants stepping through the floor, heirlooms smashed and the wine cellar plundered by Darcy’s guests; Crooks may have been drinking the sherry or left his fly open or tried to hang himself in his room; and a mob of angry neighbors may have gathered in the foyer, but you would never know any of these things from Crooks’s deadpan reports: “Forgive me sir for disturbing you. And forgiving your presence milord Ronald. But a riot is on.” Crooks even makes the hunt—mostly an occasion for sex and physical combat between the hunters themselves—sound rather civilized: “There’ll be a bit of the duck you brought down out of the sky the other evening and I’ll have decanted for you a nice drop of claret.” To Crooks, Darcy’s estate extends into the air, and “brought down” suggests birds can be plucked from the sky as if from a high shelf.
There is a wonderful moment at the beginning of the second half of Don Quixote when the knight hears about the adventures of the many other men who, inspired by his tale, have donned armor and lived out their own tale of chivalry. For Darcy, this moment comes at the beginning of That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman. Calmly pulling on his gloves to drive his gleaming motor car, sniffing the air for rain and gazing out at the fog, Darcy realizes, “As per the past, appalling disasters always befall one at such beatific times.” Informed that he and his car are the talk of society, Darcy then says, “One’s circumstances Sexton, I do believe, have undergone such glowing exaggeration and been extended so far beyond the truth as to be plainly in the realm of the ridiculous.” Does Darcy (and by extension Donleavy) know that his story strains credulity? If so, the answer is to strain away. As a young man Darcy violates two taboos in having sex with a much older servant. In Leila he contemplates the taboo of marrying for love instead of money. By the third book he is urinating on the only rich bachelorette in the neighborhood while thinking about her father’s habit of rogering sheep with their hind legs plunged in his boots.
“A stranger comes to town” could describe the standard science-fiction plot in which a computer becomes self-aware and turns on its creator. Such is the challenge faced by an author whose hero comes to see himself or herself as a hero, as fictional. A contemporary of Donleavy’s solves this metafictional problem in a different way at the end of his own trilogy. Read from a few feet away, just enough to blur the words, the Darcy books could be mistaken for Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. Horses on the covers, not too many commas, and in Donleavy, not a single question mark—an omission which makes every question a statement, self-reflection difficult, and conflict unavoidable. Look closer and you’ll see that boys and horses hold a special place in each (with Donleavy dwelling on their farts, appetites, and the size of their penises, McCarthy on their innocence). For John Grady Cole in Cities of the Plain, the realization that he is a hero and needs to behave like one comes as he lies mortally wounded after a knife fight with the man who has killed his fiancée. John calls for help from a young boy who is too scared to approach until John talks to him “the way he’d talk to a horse,” calmly explaining that he is a famous knife fighter and that the boy, by helping him, will share in his fame. For McCarthy, only death can make a boy look back on his life, and this scene ends the trilogy.
In his memoir, J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland, Donleavy admits there is more to life than money, sex, and a fire in the grate: “The animal wants its back protected and to eat. Man is that animal and when he has eaten, he deals in art and artifice, and it becomes lie and compromise; a soft, ingrate murmur of accents and incomes.” Is the same true of his books? Anyone who writes for money can be accused of compromise. But does the Donleavy living in a twenty-five-room mansion in the country and now showing his paintings in galleries lose touch with the Donleavy whose struggle to support his family and whose Dublin drinking binges inspired his early work?
Many Donleavy lines are intentionally bad. When Sebastian comes downstairs “martyred and mussed, feeble and fussed, heart and soul covered in cement,” compromise is the point and the writing itself has been poured into word-molds which must begin with m and f. In A Fairy Tale of New York (1973), a young man whose wife has just died on a trans-Atlantic cruise gets food by thickening his brogue until getting credit from an Irish grocer, and pays the bill for his wife’s funeral by going to work for her undertaker, Mr. Vine. The wry Vine describes suicides going out windows like “pop corn off a red hot pan” so that when he refers to the leading female character in the book as “Mrs Sourpuss” you think he must be joking. Sadly, this is her name. When page upon page of naughty fragments start to rhyme in Donleavy’s second novel, A Singular Man (“Her rear. Agony to have it near again”), the unfunny joke is D’s. And yet when he appears to be alliterating mindlessly with “a great green glass tub on golden lion paws,” in The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968), you realize the four g’s are the paws on the tub.
Bad lines can be great; the trick is harder to pull off over the course of a book. The Onion Eaters (1971) tells the story of Clayton Claw Cleaver Clementine, a man with too many names, one too many testicles, and a sprawling castle in which strangers are forever making themselves at home, eating at his table and fornicating in his beds, battling for control of different parts of the estate and resolving their disputes by, for example, standing arse to arse and squeezing each other’s genitals until someone says enough. One guest has orgasms if you touch her on the arm.
The tension between animal instinct and art and artifice is played out in the relationship between young Darcy and his tutor Mr. Arland. Arland drills Darcy in the proper use of commas and periods, with numerous examples of the Eats, Shoots & Leaves variety. In the line “while Mr Arland was having cheese, port and a cigar, I with fork and spoon rapidly shovelled it with accompanying scads of thick cream, most deliciously between by my lips,” the uptight tutor’s treats are lifelessly described, but read Darcy’s snack aloud and you hear and feel the smack of his pudding in your throat. The two halves of this sentence also show the path not taken by Darcy after his father punishes him for sleeping with a servant by firing Arland and sending Darcy to boarding school. “Come Kildare, buck up,” Arland says as they part. Darcy responds, “I can’t sir jump up and down in joy and be jolly.” Arland has failed in that Darcy still won’t punctuate; and yet Darcy has found a rhythm all his own.
Donleavy’s unpredictable punctuation lets him exploit what Derrida called the silence between words, lets his characters exploit the world around them and, for example, stop time in the middle of an otherwise embarrassing spill: “Darcy Dancer stepping back a little from this lady whose face juts forward. And turning to apologize as his heels landed on a rather robust young woman’s toes. Who shoves him off. Right up against the artist advancing upon him in her green voluminous sweater.” Fights punctuated in this way let Donleavy’s characters strike when their opponents and the reader have their guard down. In The Beastly Beatitudes Of Balthazar B, the skittish Balthazar can’t speak when asked “Would you marry me,” by Elizabeth Fitzdare who, rich, beautiful, bold in bed, handy with a horse, a gun, and a pool cue, seems to offer the best shot at lasting happiness that Balthazar or any Donleavy male will ever have. Proposing a second time, she knows enough to do it in Donleavian, putting the “you” and “me” in different sentences: “I knew I would never wait for marriage. And I guess I just had to ask you. To marry me. First. I knew it might frighten you away.” This time Balthazar says yes. Fitzdare does what Donleavy’s other novels suggest is impossible: she finds her way through the maze that surrounds a man’s heart. It is therefore unforgivable when Fitzdare, whose mother and brother have already died in accidents, dies as a result of a fall from a horse. Balthazar shows that Donleavy could go beyond the debauchery of Dangerfield or The Penis of Protagonist P; he just doesn’t want to yet.
In The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms (1995), Donleavy writes about a woman whose two passions are art and restrooms in which “the polish and shine might blind you.” Encouragingly, this novella starts with desperate housewife Jocelyn Guenevere Marchantiere Jones firing a shotgun at her television—the American equivalent of a fire in the grate. And though her husband has just left her for a bit of “fresh flesh,” forty-three-year-old Jocelyn still has money, a big house, a trim figure and an itchy trigger finger. If Darcy’s rambling thoughts and quixotic punctuation stem from the firing of his tutor Mr. Arland, Restrooms is short because Jocelyn cuts men off before they can ramble on. Out of pride she doesn’t ask her husband for alimony, nor sue the financial advisor who squanders her savings. Forced to get a job as a waitress, she defends the honor of a wine wrongly insulted by one of her customers by pouring it on his head. Humiliated by a friend’s husband who shows up drunk in the middle of the night, Jocelyn decides to make the most of the situation and charge him five hundred dollars for sex. He only has a hundred, and Jocelyn shoots at him with her Smith & Wesson when he tries to buy her cheap. Part of Jocelyn’s charm is that you’re inside her head yet can’t seem to get to know her. Donleavy alludes to daily masturbation as if it is a chore, and the cool fact that “the arts had immeasurably improved her contentment.” The book is illustrated with ten drawings by Elliot Banfield. Up close you see that dark walls, dark suits, and men are dense masses of vertical and horizontal lines. The only curves in a drawing of Jocelyn looking at a painting of a waterfall are her head, her instep, and the nude girl standing in the middle of the falls.
Jocelyn’s quest for clean restrooms leads her to a funeral parlor where the sight of a dead man and sound of his chorale playing to an empty room inspire her to sign the guest book—the smallest act of charity which, in return, wins her the fortune bequeathed to those who sign the book. Donleavy took it all away just to give it back? The first Darcy book ends with Darcy getting rich by picking five winning horses in a row, the last coming in at odds of a hundred to one. Have we shot the TV and seen the nothing that can be marriage, children, friends, work—only to be saved by a fairy tale? Not this time. Bad luck did not bring Jocelyn down. Good luck does not lift her up. Rich again, she finds herself contemplating suicide. Jocelyn’s grace is such that near the end of the book she is mistaken for a Lady Elizabeth Fitzdare by a young couple on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum. The name opens a wormhole through which you wish Jocelyn could walk with her shotgun and sharp tongue to cut Donleavy’s other men and books down to size, through which you wish Fitzdare would come back to life.