This is a story with a happy ending. In a publisher’s note at the back we are told tha J.P. Donleavy’s legendary first novel, “The Ginger Man,” has sold 5 million copies throughout the world and has not been out of print since it was first published in 1955. This new book tells how Donleavy wrote the book, suffered rejection, only to have the book published, to his horror, by a publisher of pornography in Paris.
But it tells a great deal more besides, offering a picture of American exiles mixing with local bohemians and writers in Ireland after the war. Donleavy began his novel in County Wicklow, south of Dublin, in a small cottage. He was just married; his wife’s family was unsure whether their daughter was safe in the hands of this would-be first novelist.
Gainor Crist, the model for “The Ginger Man,” appears here, built up as a character of great eccentricity, but curiously un-alive in these pages, a ghostly presence. The writer Ernest Gebler emerges as wise and encouraging; toward the end of the book Gebler meets the young novelist Edna O’Brien. Her family, or her family’s supporters, come to intervene and save her virtue, thus offering Donleavy material for one of the many fight scenes in this book.
When his novel was almost ready to be launched, Donleavy returned to the United States. He introduces us to many of his old schoolmates and neighbors. Perhaps this would work in another book, but here, at times, it is like reading a telephone book, or other people’s postcards. Take Mrs. Kuntze, for example. She appears on Page 307: " . . . on the main street of Katonah Avenue, I met Mrs. Kuntze. And as I was about to leave Woodlawn for good, it seemed as if it were preordained. For this pleasant, attractive woman of outspokenness and character was the mother of Alan, Donald and of my first girlfriend, Carol, all of whom had been part of my most impressionable years growing up in America. And for this nice lady, I briefly broke my silence and croaked out a few words.”
Publishers are not so nice; and it is made clear to Donleavy that, because of its supposed obscenity, his book will not be published in the United States. He is not short of confidence and, more importantly perhaps, he is not short of money--he gets a handsome wedding present from his father-in-law, and then some cash from his mother, and is subsequently supported by Ernest Gebler who reads the manuscript of “The Ginger Man” and recognizes the real writer in Donleavy.
This book is at its best when it sticks to the subject of “The Ginger Man.” Donleavy seems to have kept every single rejection slip sent to him in Britain and the United States. The reader knows the outcome, but there is great drama in watching the story unfold. “This manuscript of yours. Were we to publish it here in Boston, we would be tarred and feathered,” he is told. Late one night, while carousing in London with Brendan Behan he hears about the Olympia Press, a French publisher who publishes books in English, and had published Samuel Beckett.
The tone of book becomes more concentrated as Donleavy prints the entire correspondence between himself and the Olympia Press. His disappointment and anger shine from the pages when he finally gets his printed book. He had been waiting for this moment for so long. And now he discovers that his title is not in the literary list with Beckett but in a list with titles like “The Enormous Bed,” “School for Sin,” “The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe” and “The Whip Angels.”
Soon, it becomes clear that there will not be a battle between Donleavy and the Olympia Press over the list, but over rights as well. “I would,” he writes, “if it were the last thing I ever did, redeem and avenge this work that I’d put my very life into writing.” In an early letter from the Olympia Press, which Donleavy reprints here, he is told: “We would suggest shortening these opening 100 pages; but almost all the book calls for the same revision.” Forty years later, the same could be fairly said about this book. The tone, much of the time, is slack. Too many characters are introduced and never appear again. There are too many anecdotes and scenes that belong to notes for an autobiography rather than the story being told.
And yet the story being told is of great interest. It is instructive to know about the timidity of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950s; how a classic novel was written, and how its author came to triumph against adversity.