Drive an hour west of Dublin, past Lough Owel, past the gatehouse of Levington Park and up the pebbled road to find huge spreading trees, limestone walls, all varieties of bovine life, and everywhere stillness and green and crystal light. You rap on J.P. Donleavy's double doors. Try the bell. Nothing. Peek in the high windows. It's a cavernous Georgian wonder, a 20-room manse on a 180-acre plot, and you figure give it time, someone's got to be in there.
So while you wait, you remember an eerie, self-aware article Donleavy wrote for the Saturday Review five years ago, "The Author and His Image":
The author starts out with no image at all except his burning sincerity, determination and dedication, and perhaps an occasional raging fist shook in a scorning relative's face, that by God he's going to be rich and famous. A legend in his lifetime.
All this he has become, thanks to his very first novel, and not quite as much thanks to his many later ones. That novel, published in Europe in 1955, was "The Ginger Man," the Rabelaisian story of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American ostensibly studying at Trinity College, Dublin. Not unlike Donleavy himself in his youth and some of his friends, Dangerfield lives on the kindness of gullible women, the beneficence of the GI Bill and the nourishment of porter and stout.
"I think we are the natural aristocrats of the race," he proclaims. "Come before our time. Born to be abused by them out there with the eyes and the mouths." Dangerfield asks for succor and prayer even while he is stealing your pork chop and rent money. And you cannot resist echoing the novel's closing benediction: God's mercy, On the wild Ginger man.
J.P. Donleavy walks down his broad staircase slowly, every inch the Anglo-Irish country gentleman. His gait is regal, his beard is tipped white, his eyes are green and glinting, his suit is baggy and rumpled in the English tradition.
Donleavy is lord of a great manor. He lives here with his second wife, Mary Wilson Price, an American actress he met during rehearsals for a stage version of "A Singular Man." Donleavy has been a citizen of Ireland since 1967, and the laws enacted two years later that make life tax-free for writers and other artists in Ireland are, to him, "at least as important as winning the Nobel Prize." He meets with few authors, reads even fewer contemporary novels and both spiritually and geographically steers clear of the literary thicket.
"Writing," he begins, curling into an armchair, "is such a serious occupation and such a tough one, that one withdrew quite a lot from that world in order to work."
His voice, it turns out, is a triumph of engineering and will. Though he was born in Brooklyn 58 years ago, raised in the Bronx, and has lived only briefly in Britain, Donleavy speaks in the "pukka" tones and distant syntax of a well-mannered Mayfair lad.
He goes on: "This place is a plant, machinery in my case as an author. I discovered that this house gives one all the opportunities to actually sit and work. That has been a major consideration in one's life. Some writers talk about needing domestic noises and such but I've gotten to a stage where I've enjoyed so much silence and isolation that very little is needed to distract me."
The voice is but a part of Donleavy's dazzle.
Once his daily writing session is done, he might swim in the indoor pool (an item as common in Ireland as Urdu folksingers), build stone walls, bail hay, kick a ball around his lighted private soccer field, or play an improvised version of badminton in one of the house's enormous vaulted rooms. To relax he can stroll in endless pastures and past long rose gardens and poultry coops. He can draw a tankard of Guinness from a private tap in the hall or take tea on a porch where James Joyce sat as a teen-ager.
"Joyce's father was working as a census-taker and they came to Mullingar," he says, poking around the yard with the business end of his shillelagh. "They were said to have slept in this house. Joyce mentions it in 'Stephen Hero.' "
Though "The Ginger Man" clearly led to much of this splendor, Donleavy's relationship with the novel and what it has brought him is curious. It is sometimes distant, defensive, the way one might feel about a dubious inheritance.
Donleavy began writing the book as a student at Trinity but returned to New York to finish it and find it a home. Forty-five publishing houses rejected the manuscript. "Most people thought it was a dirty book -- scatological, unreadable, obscene," he says. "My life literally depended on getting this book into print, and when I couldn't, it just drove me out of America.
"In the American tradition of Thomas Wolfe or Fitzgerald, you write a book and it explodes and you become a great figure. Nothing like that happened to me, of course. 'The Ginger Man' took from 1955 to 1961 before it became a tall, best-selling book. So I never had a taste of success as an author. I never was able to wake up one morning and think, 'Ah, this is marvelous!' I never had that overnight sensation that all authors are now geared to."
The novel first appeared in Maurice Girodias' notorious series of underground books, "The Traveler's Companion." The unexpurgated version was not available in America and Britain until 1965. But slowly, "The Ginger Man" began to sell, to be passed around the way Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" once had been.
Students in the '60s put it on their shelves next to Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," Richard Farina's "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me," Thomas Pynchon's "V," Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim" and John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger." Not a few readers flocked to Dublin so they, like Sebastian, could roam the pubs of Grafton Street to soak in the blather and the suds and smash a window or a jaw. "The Ginger Man" legitimized biting the hand that not only fed one but paid the tuition bills. It offered a rebellion more of delight than political commitment.
Donleavy was famous and infamous, "a living legend." Readers (mostly male) imagined him to be the living embodiment of their hero. They saw photographs of Donleavy -- rail-thin, scowling, bearded, Harris-tweeded, armed with a shillelagh and guarded by wolfhounds -- and they invested him with Dangerfield's "qualities." As Donleavy puts it, "When folk had warning that the author of 'The Ginger Man' was coming to their house, the furniture would be screwed down, the drink locked up, and the key to the wife's chastity belt hidden."
"The Ginger Man's" success may have been slow, but it has proved steady. It has sold more than five million copies. Restaurants in New York and Los Angeles are named after the book. John Byrum, the director of "The Razor's Edge," is preparing a film version. The novel has wide, if sometimes odd, appeal. Dorothy Parker called "The Ginger Man" "a rigadoon of rascality, a bawled-out comic song of sex." The New Yorker would later say that "no contemporary writer is better than J.P. Donleavy at his best." In "The Executioner's Song," Norman Mailer writes that convicted murderer Gary Gilmore was a voracious reader while on Death Row. Gilmore's favorite book was "The Ginger Man."
Donleavy somehow believes that many of his current readers "have never heard of 'The Ginger Man,' " and he himself has no special affinity for its technical accomplishments.
"I, personally, have no feeling that 'The Ginger Man' represents my best work," he says. "When I pick it up and read it now critically as a piece of writing, in technical terms, it doesn't compare to later books.
"The reason I might be read as a writer is not 'The Ginger Man.' Those people who've read 'A Singular Man' consider that one of my best books ever, one they feel close to. The same with 'Darcy Dancer.' "
That is a bit like believing that Joseph Heller is read for "Something Happened" or Herman Melville for "Omoo."
The misogyny, the fear, the drinking, the gold-lust, the contempt for both the squeamish and the rude, the recurring venues of Dublin, Donleavy's own fragmented style -- all of it has seemed to grate on many critics as the oeuvre fattened. Donleavy's titles have a repetitive, alliterative cadence -- "The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B," "The Saddest Summer of Samuel S," "The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman," "Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule" -- and some reviewers recite the titles as a mocking litany.
Nearly every negative review -- and there have been enough to fill a file cabinet -- has called the work at hand a "pale imitation" (or some such) of "The Ginger Man."
Geoffrey Wolff, reviewing "The Onion Eaters" for The New York Times in 1971, wrote, "The plain fact is that Donleavy hasn't traveled well into the reader's middle age. With each book he has come to seem less of a writer and more of a gatemouth, talking like a barber, doubling back on his own anecdotes and set-pieces . . . Like Turkish taxicabs that somehow keep running because their drivers cannibalize one another's cars for odd bits and pieces, Donleavy's novels are best understood as collections of spare parts left over from previous performances."
Donleavy still gets calls in the night, and who can deny the callers are seeking the rascal lord of "The Ginger Man"?
"One Sunday at some crazy hour, the phone rang," Donleavy says. "It was a man who said he was in Hawaii. Hawaii! I don't know how in the world he got my number here, it's unlisted, but somehow he did. I couldn't pick up the connection exactly. He was in a nightclub I think. And he said, 'J.P. Donleavy? One thing. You don't sound anything like God!' " For Love and Eire
Donleavy's berth, unlike his profession, is undeniably soft. It was not always completely so.
His parents were Irish immigrants. His father worked in the civil service. The family home, for most of Donleavy's youth, was a house in the north Bronx near Woodlawn Cemetery. "The area was really cut off from the rest of the city," Donleavy recalls. "It was like a small Midwestern town with a Main Street and much greenery. I believe newspapers would send reporters up there to find out what middle America was thinking."
After being bounced from one prep school, Donleavy barely graduated from another: "I was regarded as being a bad influence on the rest of the student body." After graduation, Donleavy was drafted into the Navy and stationed in Little Creek, Va., where he avoided "the amphibious suicide mission to the Pacific that was quite inevitable" by gaining entrance into the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Port Deposit, Md.
"It was a strange school, full of brilliant people and the sons of powerful people," says Donleavy. "And it was there that I made my first serious literary efforts. One of the instructors was a brilliant, literate man and he had us write themes on 'My Favorite Vacation,' unsophisticated topics like that. And I wrote everyone's themes. One day, when we were reading the themes aloud, he looked up and said, 'We have a ghostwriter in this room.' He recognized my style in all the papers. He said, 'Well, class, we have someone in this room who will one day be an author.' "
The war was soon over. Donleavy had no prayer of gaining admission to a prestigious American university and so he asked his mother if she knew any schools in Ireland. She said Trinity, Donleavy said fine, "and for some reason, so did Trinity."
"There were three six-week terms and the rest of the time was your own," he says. "It was an absolute wonder. I spent my time at pubs and at parties that went on for weeks. People would disappear for days and days. Pub life was a kind of catholic, democratic collection of people. And you were worth as much as your last sentence. My literary background became a spoken one and my education came from the people one associated with.
"A close contemporary of mine was Brendan Behan the author of "Borstal Boy" . We were introduced and almost instantly we were on our feet squaring off to fight. I think he called me a 'narrow-back' or something mild like that, but I was quite touchy being an American in Dublin. We became friends and he even used my rooms at Trinity to run guns to the IRA. But as tough as he was, Behan couldn't really fight. I had fights every night, though. Life was one long fight at the time, night after night. It was like the Wild West. If I thought I was headed toward trouble, I'd just hit them instantly. I never hesitated. I had a beard then, when beards were unheard of, and that may have provoked one or two fights. I got a reputation and sooner or later people left me alone.
"Dublin is an unloved place now. Very little is preserved of it, a terrible tragedy. But back then, everyone in Dublin considered themselves part of the life there and free game to be written about. There was this idea that everyone all over the country was writing a book and they were all staring at blank pages. The people one met in pubs all thought of themselves as characters and liked the idea that they could end up in someone's book."
Donleavy's book, of course, was "The Ginger Man." He left Trinity without a degree and began composing the novel's wild reveries and broken sentences while living with his first wife on a small farm in County Wicklow, then returned to America for a year to finish the book. But America and its publishing houses failed him. Unlike Joyce and Synge and Beckett who fled Ireland, Donleavy sailed off to his life's refuge.
"I was a sad sight," he says. "All I had was that book and no one was printing it."
But soon Maurice Girodias did print "The Ginger Man," and, in time, millions read it. 'Did He Die'?
Donleavy admits he is "a little cut off" in Mullingar from both his American and Irish urban influences. "But you can't always depend on hearing the voices," he says. "You have to learn to write away from them."
Business gets him out of the house now. Donleavy manages his own career in the cool, intelligent manner of a commodities broker. The commodity is his imagination. Ever since his disastrous first experiences in publishing, Donleavy has handled his own business. He now owns Girodias' Olympia Press. He goes to the States two or three times a year, "mostly on publishing matters or for the show business one is involved in."
When Donleavy is in New York, he often plays with his son Philip a peculiar version of badminton at the "highly exclusive" New York Athletic Club. The sport will be the ostensible subject of his next book, a comic "legend" titled "D'Alfonse Tennis: The Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions." His publisher, Donleavy reports, "had no idea what I was up to."
And so it will probably go for years. Novels and legends issuing from the haven (financial and pastoral) of County Westmeath. Rotten reviews in England, mixed ones in America, not much at all from Ireland. And, as always, much yearning for "The Ginger Man" and blame that J.P. Donleavy grew up and away from Sebastian Dangerfield, his invention and his ghost.
Once more from "The Author and His Image":
The author ends as he began . . . Alone. Locked up in his own tiny world. Haunted a little by the ricochets of all the accumulated images . . . Except somewhere you know there will be a voice. At least once asking. Hey, what happened to that guy, did he die, you know the one, who wrote that book, can't remember his name but he was famous as hell. That was the author. And that was his image.