Friday, November 10, 2017

# 99 The Ginger Man – J.P. Donleavy

Carlin: chaos lover
Clarke: crackling copy
Crist: zesty and unique

With considerable quality and quantity, Sebastian Dangerfield violates the Third Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

The essence of The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy’s 1955 novel, is that it is devoid of respect, utterly in vain. The hero trashes family, lovers, neighbors, country and God (he spares only a few partners in dissolution). His dealing of disrespect differs from the passive stance of another Dangerfield, the American comic Rodney, who merely muttered, “I don’t get no respect.”

Man (or Woman) Behaving Badly is an evergreen, bankable template for the arts and entertainment. As Dangerfield recounts and contemplates his serial transgressions, he reports that a girl in Baltimore told him, “…that is the way to do a lot of things in life—just go ahead and do them.” Donleavy’s protagonist clearly endorses a “do what thou wilt” philosophy, which got a 20th Century spin from the English occultist Aleister Crowley and the Thelemites. Truth be told, Dangerfield favors freedom over philosophy; libertinism over libertarianism.

Moreover, he wants to be free as things fall apart. “I’m a man for bedlam,” he says while recounting his disruption of a Christmas party. The sentiment is not uncommon. Dangerfield’s contemporary in fiction, Sal Paradise of Kerouac’s On the Road, was famously drawn to “the mad ones” for brotherhood and inspiration. In 1992, the comedian George Carlin kicked off a signature rant with “I enjoy chaos and disorder.” While Carlin was exposing society's presumable preference for news about others, Dangerfield is himself an agent of discord--he practices chaos and disorder.

When confronted with the responsibility of fatherhood or conjugal partnership, Dangerfield lashes out or flees like his name source, The Gingerbread Boy, who first appeared in print in the 1875 St. Nicholas magazine. In the folk tale, after the gingerbread cake is transubstantiated into a boy, he leaves his “parents” in the dust to face the perils of the road alone. By absenting fathers and mothers, countless writers of children’s fiction allow their heroes to shed comfort and security and go off and have their adventures, as Nathan Bransford noted. When Dangerfield reminisces about his childhood or envisions the delivery of trust funds, he disparages his faraway father and omits his mother.

Unforgettably, the edible gingerbread boy taunts his pursuers with bursts of verse, “And I can run away from you, I can.” Similarly, Donleavy, through Dangerfield, ends most of his chapters with a set of brief verses that James Campbell calls a "ditty." The centathlete thinks of the appendage more as a “tassel” because of its dangling appearance on the page. Perhaps one instance—"And/Fun/Too”—is meant to be further and naughtily enjoyed by reading the first letters to spell “aft.”

Donleavy was also a painter, so it’s appropriate to think about his book in visual terms, as does Dangerfield when he describes days as “oblong,” “triangular” and “rectangular.” When he regards the weather, he gets concisely, wonderfully lyrical, as in “a rare sun of spring,” “the soft million drops,” and “the gray wet over everything.”

There are other recurring devices in The Ginger Man: the first person vs. third person perspective; riffs about “ould” Irish places and heroes; and the posing and consideration of “Do you like Ireland?” Questioning is a key tactic to Dangerfield’s success as a womanizer, and he knows it. He dives in about a girl’s home life, work, what she wants to do in life, and more, eliciting touching responses before the delivery of the ends to his means.

The stylistic repetition of the book suits its episodic nature and calls out a few big changes that take place. Marion departs with Felicity, leaving the hero free again. Most notably, the action shifts from Dublin to London. The sense is of deliverance to a prosperous Calvinist paradise where dear old Clocklan, thought to have been a suicide, is resurrected as a transfigured, munificent savior—Dangerfield’s personal Jesus. 

Mixing religion with sacrilege is central to Dangerfield’s identity. Before the first time he calls himself “the ginger man,” he says, “Jesus and I have been through a great deal together.” The only other instance of the name is the tassel at the novel’s end, “God’s mercy/On the wild/Ginger Man.” With self-aware mockery, Dangerfield reveals delusions of religious grandeur, one of the characteristics of sociopathology, according to HealthGuidance.

Is Dangerfield a sociopath? The real-life inspiration for his friend Kenneth O’Keefe, A.K. Donaghue, addressed the issue: “Although I firmly believe that Gainor S. Crist was a sociopath, I must say that JPD [Donleavy] never did nor does probably think so now.”

Noel Shrine in Irish America explained, “Gainor Crist was an American student at Trinity College Dublin, in the late forties, and Donleavy acknowledges him as the inspiration for Dangerfield.”

Crist’s widow, Pamela O’Malley de Crist, discussed with The Independent the font, truth and fiction of The Ginger Man: “'Gainor found it a funny book, and it is. Extraordinary things happened to Gainor, and he did extraordinary things...Most of the key exploits were based on fact. Gainor had a zest and a vitality for people.’” Later, the interviewer writes, “She added, ‘Donleavy liked to imply that it was himself. But how could he have done all that? It could only, and did, happen to Gainor. He was unique.’" 

And The Ginger Man is self-consciously unique--indeed, Donleavy called his next novel A Singular Man. Distressingly, for the introduction of its offering of the novel, Grove Press opted for a Name rather than singular content. The result is a cursory, drab piece by Jay McInerny, whose writings over the decades exude a distinct waft of smugness that has been noted by others, such as Tim Dibblee in Salon.com.

What might a worthy intro have looked like? Try this on:
“JP Donleavy is a man that many women want to murder.  After all, he was the creator of Sebastian Dangerfield, ‘The Ginger Man’.  Every woman’s nightmare.  A dashing rogue who would seduce you, shag you up the arse, slap you around the place, steal your savings and abandon you with the baby, while he made the rounds of the pubs, seducing other women.” 
That crackling teaser is by Victoria Mary Clarke, who interviewed Donleavy for French Vogue in 2006. Journalist, vlogger and media coach, Clarke was previously connected to Donleavy through her partner, Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of The Pogues. MacGowan, who was born on Christmas Day, co-wrote “Fairytale of New York,” the Christmas anthem whose title is lifted from Donleavy’s 1973 novel, and “considered by many to be the greatest Christmas song ever,” according to The Guardian. Furthermore, the singer and the writer had met before, and the former was set to play Brendan Behan in a movie production of The Ginger Man, led by Johnny Depp, that was over-reported and ultimately aborted.

Like a number of other journalists, Clarke stayed at Donleavy's estate, Levington Park, to describe the lion in his Irish winter. She wrote: 
“I put it to Donleavy that the violence against the women and child in the book, while probably considered normal at the time he wrote it, is definitely shocking now, especially when you consider that the rest of the book is extremely funny.
“‘I certainly have never been violent towards any woman,’ he assures me. ‘Quite the opposite. I think I have an exaggerated regard for women, always have. Gainor [Crist] was the same.’”
That comforting response skirts the novel's dramatic actions and intent. Fighting or inciting suits the protagonist, and proximity seems to be his only criterion for selecting a target.

In considering the violent, wild Sebastian Dangerfield, the centathlete was compelled to examine two real men, both older brothers of longtime friends. We’ll call them A. and B.

Some number of years ago, A. texted, “You didn’t tell me you got married.” The note was odd because the centathlete had been married for at least five years, and because it came from out of nowhere: there was no recent history of text messages, phone calls, nor other communications. In fact, A. and the centathlete had never engaged in a one-on-one conversation. The centathlete was with his friend when in the presence of A., who had been typically buzzed and barhopping or otherwise preoccupied with his own companions.

As a young man, A. grew up in Manhattan and attended a prominent boarding school and university. He has not worked more than six months in the 30 years since. He belongs to that sizable population (we all know some) about whom one wonders, “What do they do all day?” A binge drinker, he lives comfortably with a successful, polite wife (who bought and owns their house) and their daughter. His father is wealthy and presumably supportive, in gross contrast to Dangerfield’s. In person, A. is skittish and prone to intermittent glowering and condescension. His demeanor and continued overindulgence likely stem from insecurity and mental illness, someone wise told the centathlete. A couple of years later, there came another text:

Hey bud
Long time no chat
You are still in my cell address book—ha ha… 😊
Seriously—hope you and -- and kiddos are doing well
Sorry I don’t know their names—that would be your fault for not telling me?
Probably; but easily understandable. My -- is eight plus and thriving—Greek school, huge amount of music, plus soccer of course. Kiddo is the light of our lives. Hard to believe it turned out this way but I wouldn’t trade it for anything 😊
Talk anytime my old friend.

One might welcome and respond to such lively, if presumptuous, greetings if one considered oneself a veritable "old friend" and if one didn’t know that A. had surreptitiously groped his brother’s fiancee years ago. (Again, that brother is the centathlete’s actual old friend.) Recently, while downing a can of beer with one hand, A. used the other to pinch his sister-in-law’s friend’s derriere and assert, “You know you want it.” When drinking excessively at a somber gathering of his extended family, his wife told him to take it easy and he erupted in front of everyone, including his young daughter, “You’re ruining my fucking life!” Profane, idle, offensive, chauvinistic, defensive, paranoid--Dangerfield traits. Is A. a sociopath?

The other friend’s older brother, B., is Irish American and Catholic. He was openly regarded as the smartest of his five siblings, but what does that get you? His brother, the centathlete’s dear friend, has always worshiped him, even through hurtful times. Since adolescence, they both were athletic, preppy and boozy—enamored of Brook Brothers and Bud Light. They often brought up their Irish heritage, as well as their parents’ significant financial struggle to pay for all five kids’ Catholic education.

Three decades ago, B. attended a prominent university, where alcoholism took hold and to this day has not been sufficiently managed, despite visits to Hazelden and elsewhere, and continual therapy. B. has been kicked out of his house several times but is still married—to a long-suffering, strong-willed, Marion-esque woman from a well-heeled family—and a father of three. He has had a long, productive career on Wall Street.

When sober, B. was witty and sardonic—he could easily make you laugh with impromptu comments, twisting of names and sayings, and funny voices. When drinking, he was unrestrained, haughty and cruel—the centathlete recalls seeing him once, upon entering a bar, transmogrified with a menacing glare like Mr. Hyde.

B. was unpredictable when he fell off the wagon. After not coming home to Long Island one worknight, he was found the next afternoon asleep on the other side of Manhattan in a Hoboken cemetery. His wife suspended his driving privileges periodically, so he would steal his son’s bicycle—reminiscent of Dangerfield hurtling through Dublin. One spree took him to a craps game in the upstairs kitchen of the neighborhood Chinese restaurant with the staff, a remarkable incident that inspired lyrics still awaiting a melody.

This year the centathlete received a Facebook message from B., a bolt from the blue like A.’s text. It read:

B.
Hey ---- how are you? It's been a long time....

He was right—it had been about seven years since the centathlete had seen him at B.’s father’s memorial service. Before that, at least 20 years. And as with A., there had never been a one-on-one conversation, going back to early childhood. Such a simple inquiry from someone like B. is never that simple. With hesitation, the centathlete responded:

[Centathlete]
The unreeling of the years.

This was an obvious reference to 1972’s “Reelin’ in the Years” by Steely Dan, one of B.’s favorite artists. Four years older than the centathlete and his friend, B. had cultivated strong, predictable AOR tastes for his age. The same day, B., replied:

B.
Nice Steely Dan allusion!

And the following day, he followed up:

B.
Cmon you remember the tune from “Can't buy a Thrill”...

There he was: impulsively, aggressively looking to connect with someone he knows but has never really spoken to. The centathlete looked on B.’s sparse Facebook timeline and saw an old exchange between him and one of his college friends who is now an ER doctor with a bit of a party boy reputation—they privately call him Dr. Feelgood.

Dr. Feelgood
We'll celebrate your 55th in the Hamptons. I'm coming over to watch the big game with you and the boys. I'll bring a mini-keg of Heineken for us and a six pack of O'Douls for you. Ok guy.

Such camaraderie between the Drinker and the Tenuously Reformed could fit in The Ginger Man. Dangerfield’s dialogues with O’Keefe are so enjoyable because they both commiserate and spar while the world deprives them of joy. Whether drinking with O’Keefe or playing house with Miss Frost, Dangerfield revels in his bubble-like existence. One of countless bravura moments in the novel occurs when O’Keefe reports, “Tony Malarkey says the neighborhood is in disgrace over this affair [with Miss Frost].” So, there is no bubble; everyone knows all about Dangerfield’s business.

But Dangerfield blows off that revelation and forges or bumbles ahead—in vain. He will break all the Commandments that he can until he is caught, and he will whimsically and lyrically add a few in order to violate them as well.

Before 2017, the centathlete had not heard of The Ginger Man or its author. Just a few months after completing the novel, as this dilettante clicked around for research, JP Donleavy died. The obituaries rushed to honor the long life of the singular man and his book. If he had requested God's mercy, he didn't need it.

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