J. P. Donleavy Revisits World of ‘Ginger Man’

<i> Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. </i>

Ah, to have been in Dublin when the second war was over.

“It was tremendous from the point of view that Ireland was the only place in Europe that wasn’t damaged and blown up,” says writer J. P. Donleavy, an ex-Navy man who was attending Trinity College on the GI Bill of Rights during that euphoric time.

“There were eggs and butter. This sounds crazy now, but to have a piece of butter or a steak was a miraculous thing,” he recalls. “Almost every evening, when the pub would get jammed, it was a kind of celebration. I think it was a romanticized time in a way. There could have been an unconscious feeling that this was the beginning of world peace.”

Donleavy, author of “The Ginger Man,” the comic classic and perennial seller set in that colorful time and place, takes us back again in “The History of The Ginger Man” (Houghton Mifflin). The fitting publication date is today, St. Patrick’s Day.


The new book is an autobiographical howler that traces the Brooklyn-born transplant’s Irish romps with the mischievous writer Brendan Behan, Gainor Stephen Crist and Maurice Girodias, whose Paris-based Olympia Press first published “The Ginger Man” in 1955, after it was turned down by American publishers.

Behan was the first to read the book and encourage Donleavy as a novelist, Crist the model for Sebastian Dangerfield, the Ginger Man himself.

Crist was a slothful Midwestern charmer who believed in “vegetative nirvana”--that is, “the possibility of energy emanating from the inertia of absolute indolence.” One day he had to run for his bus from a restaurant, but did so while holding his plate and beer bottle. He then took a seat and continued eating. As Behan described the episode, Donleavy writes: “Now, I’ll you one thing . . . whatever else we may say or think about him, one thing is a certainty that he has as a human being demonstrated his great practicality.”

Donleavy, 67, an Irish citizen since 1967, lives like a reclusive squire in an 18th-Century mansion on 200 acres in the Westmeath countryside. Resplendent this day in a corduroy suit, his tweed cap on the table, the white-haired Irish countryman and Bernard Shaw look-alike sits by a fire during a visit to New York and appears ages removed from the brawling Yank who lived his book’s saucy tales.

He says he reads hardly any literary fiction--he prefers newspapers--and he looks with mournful disdain at the commercial imperative that he considers the curse of the writing life in this country.

“When I failed to get ‘The Ginger Man’ published here, I realized that this wasn’t any place I was ever going to survive,” he says. “I became very conscious of the writer’s role. You know, it’s like a baseball game. You get up, it’s three strikes, you’re out, or you hit a home run, whereas in Europe I was conscious of the fact that you’re a writer and you stay that way. You begin that way, you end that way.”

In more recent years, Donleavy says, a feminist backlash in American publishing circles has come to impede him. Although he offers no specifics to support his suspicion, he says he cannot find a publisher for a third volume of his “Schultz” series of novels, in which his main character is arranging to have a hit man kill his wife.

Donleavy has always been his own literary agent and is known as a tenacious negotiator.

“I’m an unbelievable fan of his,” says Carl Navarre, who in the mid-1980s obtained the lucrative paperback rights to “The Ginger Man” for Atlantic Monthly Press after cutting the deal with Donleavy himself. “He is an incredible negotiator.”

“An agent knows when you’re washed up and you’re finished, and is likely to circulate that, when all writers are always on the verge of being washed up and finished,” Donleavy explains. “I mean, they need that to live. You have to be washed up and finished, mentally, just to go on to do the next thing, to keep the battle going.”


B Matter: A sobering tidbit reported by Media Industry Newsletter: Time and Newsweek did mid-May cover stories on Bosnia that ended up being their worst-selling covers of 1993. For Newsweek, the biggest newsstand hit of the year was a June 21 cover on lesbians; for Time, it was the January profile of Bill Clinton, the 1992 Man of the Year . . . “Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein,” a hot potato of an unauthorized biography that was dropped last year by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, is nearing publication under the Carol Publishing Group’s flag. No galley copies are being circulated before the late-April release of the book, written by Steven Gaines and Sharon Churcher.