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My Favourite Author - J.P.Donleavy – by Ian McDermott

Updated: May 8, 2020

Last night as I lay dreaming, I reflected on how times have changed. My mind took me back to the austere, puritanical post war years. I recall that ‘Then’, mandatory reading for non-reading male adolescents were two books, their attraction being that both were, or had been banned!

‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’ by D H Lawrence, was written in the 1920s but had been banned by the censors who in their wisdom, decreed that the use of Anglo-Saxon words in the novel was detrimental to the well-being of the nation. The publishers Penguin were prosecuted in 1960 at the Old Bailey under The Obscene Publications Act 1959 and a jury found that the use of the words in their correct context was not going to harm the morals of the public.

‘The Ginger Man’ by J,P,Donleavy was not banned but no publisher in the U.K. or the U.S. would publish it, in the climate of the times. It was eventually published in France as a 'Travel Book', then first published in the UK in a sanitised version before the explicit version of the novel appeared after the ‘Lady Chatterley’ judgement, which made it approved reading material.

That is all from memory of sixty years ago, so I am open to correction. But what I am certain of is that when a copy of ‘Lady C’ was acquired I was directed to the appropriate pages so that I could be ‘shocked’. Having indulged myself on this bit of Anglo Saxon in print I went to page 1 to start reading and gave up by page 3 as it looked ‘dead boring’, My contemporaries did the same.

But not so with ‘Ginger Man.’ It was, and still is, a very popular read. I was hooked from the beginning.

The novel is set in Dublin and the main character, Sebastian Dangerfield, is based on a friend and fellow student of the author, at Trinity College. Dangerfield is one of the most outrageous scoundrels in fiction. A womanising, boozing young wastrel who sponges off his friends and has violent tendencies. But Donleavy makes the reader sympathise with him for his ‘killer’ instinct, flamboyant charm, wit, generosity and his wild, fierce, two handed grab for every precious second of life.

Following on the success of ‘Ginger Man,' Donleavy wrote several more novels in a similar vein. The central characters being young, slightly 'odd-ball’ males who are smooth- talking seducers who get involved in a variety of comic situations, usually with catastrophic consequences, although none are quite as unconventional as Dangerfield.

‘Ginger Man’ was held back from publication for a number of reasons but most probably the main reason was because it contains X rated, over 18 content. When I last read it, about 10 years ago, it seemed quite tame compared with some modern novels that go into more graphic detail. While Donleavy's stories abound with love affairs they are not lewd.

I am certainly no literary critic but to me Donleavy offers a good standard of writing, unique in its construction, Gingerbread Man contains chapters and paragraphs which can contain 20 or 30 short sentences, or phrases or asides and perhaps, inconsequential reflective memories unconnected to the main narrative. Then in the midst of all this, there will be sentence vital to the story - miss it and the next paragraph will have you confused - ‘Have I missed something?’

Like John Banville he finds obscure words rarely if ever used by you or me. ‘Callipygian’ anybody?


I normally think that after a novelist has written 4 Books then he/she is just churning out a production line. Not so with Donleavy. I view his last novels, Trilogy, as my favourites: these are tales of a young boy who inherits a large Anglo-Irish House and Estate. He is surrounded by an eccentric array of wonderful characters on the estate and in the neighbourhood, The House is falling down, his estranged father is selling off his land and cattle, the locals are taking what they can steal and the servants are eating him out of house and home. Amidst all this he attempts to keep up the style and airs and graces of an aristocratic landlord.

This is Donleavy - so there must be amorous frolics but they are described in the best, comic fashion. I enjoy the works of Donleavy and Patrick McCabe but when I read them I can't help thinking that normal people can't write this sort of stuff. But what is normal? Am I, who read it?

For the record, J.P.Donleavy was born and brought up in New York by Irish immigrant parents. He served in the US Navy during WW2 and at the end of the conflict availed himself of a scheme whereby he became a student at Trinity College. There he mixed in the contemporary literary scene and stayed in Ireland until his death 3 years ago.


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