"On a winter night I heard horses on a country road, beating sparks out of the stones. I knew they were running away and would be crossing the fields where the pounding would come up into my ears. And I said they are running out to death which is with some soul and their eyes are made and teeth out. God's mercy On the wild Ginger Man"

Thus ends "The Ginger Man," the 1955 novel about the manic debauchery of one Sebastian Dangerfield, which created literary and legal history for its author, J. P. Donleavy.

It has been a long time since the book was banned, and he found himself a sudden cult figure.

But it was a trim and wiry Donleavy who strolled through the lobby of the Madison Hotel for lunch yesterday, looking every bit the Irish gentry he would like to be.

His corduroys, tweed jacket, forest-green wool vest and polka-dot handkerchief set him apart from the sea of conservative pin stripes in the lobby.

And apart is where he wants to be. Over a bowl of vichyssoise and a glass of tonic water, the 53-year-old author talked of the career which has produced the likes of "The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B," The Saddest Summer of Samuel S.," "A Singular Man," "The Onion Eaters" and "The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman."

Donleavy has made a career out of avoiding the limelight which many best-selling authors crave. For over two decades, he has gradually retreated from America -- and the rest of the world -- fleeing from the indignities of taxes, tall shows, literary critics, academia and subways.

A life not on his own terms is no life at all to J. P. Donleavy.

"My emotional roots in America are more and more tenuous," he said in an interview in Ireland last month. "My sense of being an American author is fading."

His expatriate status became official 10 years ago when he took advantage of the tax break that the Irish government offers favored artists and writers. Since then, he has written more books and remained inscrutable.

Washington was almost the end of a month-long, 11-city tour for his new novel, "Schultz," and Donleavy was looking forward to New York, his final stop before returning to Ireland and his estate, where he could fully regain his privacy.

"I understand Howard Hughes so well. Litigation makes you highly secretive," he said last month, sitting in one of his many sparsely decorated rooms.

"I kept an address and phone number in London for years," he recalled. "All my mail was sent there. That was my front to the world. I retreated tremendously from public contact. I never wrote letters. I had few friends. tI went to no parties. I was never seen in public."

An imposing gate separates Donleavy, his second wife, Mary Price Wilson, whom he calls "M.W." and their nine-month-old daughter Rebecca from the outside world, an hour-and-a-half west of Dublin in County West Meath. They live in a huge stone manor, more than 200 years old, which is as hard to heat as it is to find.

There are exquisite gardens, an indoor swimming pool in what once was part of the stables, beautiful horses and cars. Rooms repeat themselves off endless halls decorated with paintings and drawings Donleavy did years ago.

There, in silence unbroken but for the occasional mooing of his cattle, which freely roam the 180-acre estate along with his horses, his wolfhounds and his half-dozen servants, Donleavy sipped tea with lemon as the afternoon light played on his salt-and-pepper beard.

Now, Donleavy's life is finally under his exclusive control. M.W., once an aspiring acting student under Stella Adler in New York, runs the day-to-day operation of the estate while the author works in his second-floor office. There, seven days a week, he turns out the familiar staples of his trade: comic-sentimental novels in which young men confront a world that ignores their dignity and their problems, but supplies them with plenty of women and drink.

"Michael [Donleavy's family nickname] begrudges me the time I spend on the hunts," M.W. said, only half joking, about the riding which is a form of therapy in her sheltered life with Donleavy.

With a few exceptions, Donleavy has been retreating from the outside world since he attended Trinity College in Dublin, an experience he describes as "magical in the extreme."

Donleavy's tendency toward evasion and secrecy can be blamed, to a large degree, on Sebastian Dangerfield, who first appeared on the pages of the Olympia Press, then owned by Maurice Girodias.

For all but two of the last 24 years, Dangerfield -- and Donleavy -- were buffeted by lawsuits involving Girodias in three countries over the ownership rights to the book. Donleavy didn't want to see "The Ginger Man" sold in Olympia's Travelers Companion series, known primarily for its pornography as well as occasional diamonds like "Lolita."

Fourteen lawyers later the battle ended when, in 1977, Donleavy bought the Olympia Press through his holding company, affectionately named The Little Someone Corporation. M.W. orchestrated the revenge at Olympia's bankruptcy auction.

"I'm an expert in British, French and American law," Donleavy explained in September. "You get the fairest shake in an English court. The rules are more rigid. French law . . . it's Kafkaesque -- totally black."

His 22-year battle could fill a book. And it will. Donleavy is currently working on a history of "The Ginger Man," full of byzantine legal tangents.

"He's very courtly, but he's a very sharp businessman," observed Seymour Lawrence, who has published his books in hardcover for years. "He does all of his negotiating and, unlike most authors, he understands copyrights. He drives a hard bargain, but he's the most professional author I've ever known."

"I have been determined not to be taken advantage of by publishers," Donleavy responds.

And Donleavy has done well -- too well, say some critics who charge that he has written the same profitable book again and again since Dangerfield first started cheating on his poor wife, Marion.

Although he claims to be "almost totally impenetrable" to bad reviews, he displays something close to hostility toward academics and the people who review his books and plays.

"The initial reviews to "The Ginger Man' had an influence," he conceded. "But I actively discourage academic interest in my work. I never want to get that self-conscious of my literary position.

"Almost every book I've ever written has been planned by The New York Times," he added.

"It's very rough being an American writer," he continued. "They use phrases like 'at bat' and 'striking out.' You must do battle with America. I have great sympathy for people like Mailer and Capote. They're survivors."

Although he was raised in Brooklyn by a New York City fire department official and his wife, both of whom were born in Ireland, Donleavy has been losing touch with America for years.

And yet the expatriate remains fascinated with the country he is gradually abandoning. This is a man who absorbs America from a distance.

What is the latest in Kennedy assassination theories, he asked in Ireland, as a servant brought him freshly baked bread. Is Screw magazine a political statement? What is the meaning of John Connally? Is Chappaquiddick fatal to Teddy Kennedy?

Donleavy, a proud man, is sensitive to his image. And to some, he is a mercenary taking advantage of the tax break that the Irish government offers a select group of writers and artists.

"'60 Minutes' did a show on the tax situation which seems to have settled my hash as an author," he said. "Everyone thinks I'm a rich s.o.b. sitting around with everything he needs in life."

Evidently, he doesn't have everything: During his current tour, he agreed to write a screenplay of one of his novels, "A Fairy Tale of New York." He has assigned his son, Michael (from his first marriage), as an associate producer of the project as a buffer against the moguls whose priorities involve balance sheets rather than matters of literary style.

This is the first time that a movie will have been made from one of his books. He is nervous, and wants to find a director who will respect his judgment.

"I watched 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' last night," he said yesterday, "and I'm very impressed with Milos Forman as a director," he said in his soft, clipped voice.

"I think that the woman in 'The China Syndrome,' what's her name, would be good, and I've thought about Jack Nicholson and that man Savalas, too," he said.

Donleavy is ruminating over the choice of Richard Thomas, of "The Waltons" fame, to play the central character, who thrives in the funeral business and in the arms of women.

With luck, Donleavy can participate in the movie from the peace and quiet of Mullingar, Ireland, where he won't have to endure neurotic directors and cigar-chomping moguls.

And where the view of foreign shores resembles that of his castle-dwelling hero in "The Onion Eaters": "Out there far away the rest of the world has gone modern. With whole new jumping generations. And holy hell is the only thing we have up to date here. To make the stars bark. When the west's awake. Over the cliffs and roaring sea. Where the moon hides and weeps at night."