J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man was originally published by a small publisher of pornographic novels, Olympia Press, which shortly thereafter published the decidedly literary work Lolita. But Donleavy and Olympia ended up in court twenty years later, and the lawsuit and Olympia’s subsequent bankruptcy filingended with Donleavy owning the company. The book, which ranked #99 on the Modern Library 100, is a bawdy, undisciplined novel about an American wastrel trying desperately to avoid growing up while pretending to study at Dublin’s Trinity college. Its subject matter and meandering narrative form a cross between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Unfortunately, I didn’t really care for either of those books, and you’ll be shocked to hear I also didn’t care for The Ginger Man.
The titular antihero of Donleavy’s book is Sebastian Dangerfield, who begins the novel as a married man with a young baby girl, a drinking problem, an income problem (he has none), a responsibility problem, and a maturity problem. He wants to drink and chase women; his wife wants him to be a provider and a loving husband. He has no interest in studying – I’m not actually sure if the subject of his studies is even mentioned in the book – and even less in anything resembling work. He takes “loans” from friends, steals his landlords’ things and pawns them, and concocts various schemes to defraud his various creditors.
The Ginger Man is intended to be a comic novel, a modern picaresque set around a rascal whose exploits are fodder for laughs but also for our inner youths to admire. But Sebastian is no rascal – he’s an ass. He hits his wife, repeatedly, and abuses her verbally as well. He tries to suffocate his child when she makes too much noise. He destroys property – never his own, since he has none – and even tries to take revenge on his wife by hammering nails into the pipe leading out of their second-floor toilet. Debauchery can be funny, but this isn’t standard-issue drinking and whoring – this is sociopathy, a man who feels absolutely no guilt or remorse when he causes physical, emotional, or financial harm to anyone else. Once Sebastian tried to kill his daughter, there was no redemption for him or for the book in my eyes. Perhaps domestic abuse was funny in the 1960s. It’s not funny today.
The signature “humor” scene is lowbrow, but also rather unfunny, as Sebastian gets on the subway and, while mentally seething at an old man he thinks has lecherous intentions toward the girl sitting next to him, is himself taking the whole “rock out with your cock out” thing a little too literally. I suppose going out in public with the mouse of the house could be funny in some contexts, but this scene plays more along the lines of the prepubescent child giggling nervously over public nudity.
The book is, however, widely praised by critics and its placement on the Modern Library list is far from an unusual opinion, with the New York Times and the New Yorker running glowing reviews (the latter by Dorothy Parker) when it was first published here. Its prose is very much of the Joyce school of the internal monologue, with the narration shifting constantly between third- and first-person, usually with no demarcation between the two – a distracting technique, and one that gets no points from me for cleverness because it was used so many times before. The subject matter was groundbreaking at the time, with the book originally banned for obscenity (almost a badge of honor for postmodern novels of the early to mid-twentieth century), but today is ho-hum, and its sexual content is simply graphic but not erotic; it is what Mrs. Shinn would rightfully call “a smutty book.” And that would be fine, if it was funny, or if the prose was brilliant, or if the lead character was a charming lothario rather than a wife-beating, child-snuffing lunatic.
Next up: I just finished John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle. That was better.