Thursday, May 21, 2015

the last book I read

The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy.

Sebastian Dangerfield is a bit of a boy. An American, in Ireland to study for a law degree at Trinity College, Dublin, he has married and had a daughter with an English woman, Marion, and they've rented a house outside Dublin. Now very often marriage and fatherhood mellows a man; there's a realisation of the need to settle down, provide for one's own future and for others, that sort of thing.

None of this applies to Dangerfield, clearly, though, as he embarks upon a rampage of drinking, petty theft, brawling, criminal damage, unpaid bills, hiding from landlords and creditors, non-attendance at lectures and general arseholery. Marion and baby Felicity have to move out of the house after a couple of spectacular plumbing disasters and increasingly frantic attempts by the landlord to extract rent payments, but Dangerfield is too busy exposing himself on a tram and pursuing local girl Chris to really notice.

Once he catches up with Marion in her new place of residence he's clearly unchastened by the experience as he continues his hell-raising ways, interspersed with the occasional bit of domestic violence, until Marion's patience is exhausted and she takes off to Scotland with their daughter. Thus freed of responsibility, Dangerfield ramps up the hedonism, seducing the lodger, Miss Frost, as well as another local girl, Mary, whom he persuades to promise to come to London with him, and to steal some money from her family to finance the trip.

Once in London he hooks up with some old friends and perpetrates several more drink-fuelled outrages before Mary turns up to join him, and so the familiar cycle of drunken abuse and morning-after remorse begins again.

The Ginger Man was something of a cause célèbre in the late 1950s and early 1960s owing to the tortured circumstances of its original publication, and its censorship-busting sexual frankness (Lolita, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer were all in the news for similar reasons at around the same time). So it would have been the sort of book there'd have been a transgressive thrill in owning.

Of course the sexual content, while not exactly tame, has by now certainly lost most of its power to shock, so it's interesting to read the book 60 years after its original publication and see how it stands up. I suspect it seems like less of a bawdy farce and more dark and tragic to modern readers, just because the trope of the carousing Irish drunk is a bit less appealing than it once was, and people are less willing to accept the subordinate role of women as long-suffering child-carers and occasional sex receptacles and/or punchbags with precious little agency of their own.

It's certainly true that apart from the drinking, fucking and fighting precious little actually happens in terms of plot, and Sebastian Dangerfield couldn't really be said to have much of a character arc, being just as irredeemable at the end of the book as at the start. That said, it is written in an endearingly manic stream-of-consciousness way, veering wildly between first and third person without warning.

I'm not sure that, if you ignore all the historical baggage, this is a great book, though it is a perfectly entertaining one. Like anyone who had instant success with his first book, Donleavy spent the rest of his career trying - and largely failing - to live up to it. Some disagree - the Modern Library, for instance, named it in their 100 best novels of the 20th century. It's clearly still a source of interest, as can be seen from this article about Donleavy (still alive at 89, though now clearly doomed to be a future entry on the blog reading list of death) from the Irish Independent just three days ago.

It's one of those books that seems ripe for screen adaptation, until you realise that not much happens and there's a lot of interior monologue that will be difficult to render on-screen. Nonetheless there was a TV adaptation done in 1962, somewhat sanitised no doubt, starring Ian Hendry as Dangerfield. It's also supposedly been a long-standing ambition of Johnny Depp to bring The Ginger Man to the big screen; nothing yet though.

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