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J. P. Donleavy: The Ginger Man

When Donleavy wrote this novel, it was considered too obscene to publish. At the suggestion of Brendhan Behan, Donleavy sent the book to Maurice Girodias at the Olympia Press, a publisher that also published Lolita and Samuel Beckett. Donleavy was horrified when the book was published in Olympia Press’ Traveller’s Companion series, which was mainly for pornography. There was a considerable dispute between the two, till Donleavy’s then wife, Mary, bought up Olympia Press and Donleavy was then technically in litigation with himself. By today’s standards, the book seems fairly tame.

The hero is Sebastian Dangerfield, an American studying law at Trinity College, Dublin. However, he does not attend classes or take exams, as he is on the G.I. Bill. His time is spent cheating, lying, stealing and drinking. He is married to Marion and they have a daughter. Both had married the other, thinking that the other was rich. Both were mistaken. Sebastian is waiting for his father to die, so he can inherit In the meantime, he steals, borrows money which he never intends to repay and sponges money from his various girlfriends. At best, he ignores his wife and daughter and at times abuses them. In short, he is an incorrigible rogue but, of course, we cannot help but liking him. He has his ambitions – he dreams of being chairman of the largest bank in he world – and he clearly wants to succeed, though he is not prepared to work to do so. He is disinherited for twenty years, as Marion has written to his father, telling him of Sebastian’s behaviour. Marion eventually leaves him but he does not change.

Sebastian is not your quintessential rebel. He is not the outsider who wants to bring down society but the outsider who wants to be very much part of it. Sebastian was picked up by various angry young men as their anti-hero but he himself would not have appreciated that. Of course, he is amoral and of course the book is therefore seen to be amoral or immoral (take your pick) but Donleavy’s fine, fast-moving prose makes this a novel that it is well worth reading. You don’t have to approve of or identify with Sebastian to enjoy it.

Publishing history

First published 1955 by Olympia Press