BOOK REVIEW / Those beastly Irish beatitudes: The history of the Ginger man: by J P Donleavy, Viking pounds 17

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The Independent Culture
THE possibility of disaster on a grand scale is a compelling myth to find attached to a writer's reputation, and the opening pages of J P Donleavy's autobiography hold the interest the opening pages of his books usually do: you find yourself trying to decide whether this one is shaping up as a tour de force or farce.

It will surprise nobody to learn that Donleavy is obsessed with Donleavy. Gently brash in the aftermath of the Second World War, this iconoclastic American moved to Dublin where he became a student at Trinity College, and a connoisseur of Irish whiskey, and where he also found time to write The Ginger Man, a major part of whose appeal today, as on its publication 40 years ago, is in its unabashed egotism.

In the person of his alter ego Sebastian Dangerfield, Donleavy created one of the more outrageous scoundrels of post-war fiction, a whoring, boozing young wastrel who sponges off his friends and beats his wife. In this autobiography, Donleavy investigates the origins of his famous book, with its almost magically potent blend of the vulgar and the elegant, the grotesque and the lyrical, its view of Dublin as Sodom and Gomorrah on the Liffey, and its epic synthesis of the author's well-known obsessions, from the meta-

physics of sexual behaviour to the joys of draught stout.

As Donleavy observes, writing is a sedentary, middle-class profession - like psychoanalysis but far more lonely - and writers seldom lead interesting lives. Unless, that is, they happen to know the likes of Brendan Behan, Ernest Gebler and other sybaritic Dubliners. The ginger man's affection for his down-and-outs, malcontents and psychotics is obvious. But he doesn't romanticise the people or the milieu. His memoir is clear-eyed, bracingly unsentimental. The Dublin we see here is as flat as a petri dish, and weird stuff grows in it: obsessions, stubborn neuroses, spectacular personality disorders, low-grade anomie. Perhaps only somebody who grew up outside Ireland, as Donleavy did, would dare to present its saloon-bar culture as an inadvertent experiment in freedom.

The most interesting section of the book refers to the publishing history of The Ginger Man in the years before the Lady Chatterley trial. Donleavy touted the manuscript around umpteen publishing houses, but it was rejected everywhere on the grounds of its obscenity. The author, of course, took the failure personally and, 40 years on, the autobiography is filled with barbed tales about the many editors, critics and fellow-writers who, in his view, did him wrong. But pride of place in his rogues' gallery goes to Maurice Girodias, the publisher who actually brought out a first edition of the novel.

Like Joyce, an earlier Dublin pornographer whose Ulysses was printed in Paris, Donleavy struck a deal with an independent French publisher as a way of defeating the censor. He reprints, here, the voluminous correspondence with Girodias as they haggled over royalties and print runs. The result is a funny and oddly moving low-life picaresque which reaches a climax with the publication of the magnum opus in the Traveller's Companion series, along with such titles as Whip Angels, The Loins of Amon and School for Sin. The second half of the book is devoted to Donleavy's efforts to avenge his novel, and yet the mood is redolent less of anger than a sort of decayed hope with barracuda bites of wild humour.

The History of The Ginger Man isn't about anything as simple as lost innocence, but it draws you into a kind of complicity with itself. Donleavy's confident, fiercely original style involves a search for elusive moods and ambiguous, fleeting emotions. Like most truly distinctive styles, it is an amalgam of borrowed ideas. Yet his talent consists of making the odd moments of sudden, profound understanding seem worth any amount of pain and muddle and slapstick catastrophe.

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