The literary career of J.P. Donleavy (born 1926) has spanned nearly 50 years, though he is most famous for his first novel, The Ginger Man.
James Patrick Donleavy was born on April 23, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Irish immigrants who settled with their three children in the Bronx neighborhood of Woodlawn. Donleavy established a poor reputation in school when he was expelled from Fordham Preparatory, a New York Jesuit school. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, then used the GI bill to attend Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He lived in Ireland and England, eventually settling permanently in Ireland. Donleavy became an Irish citizen in 1967 as "a purely practical matter of tax," he told Thomas E. Kennedy of Literary Review. "Not actually to gain money so much as to simplify my life." He settled into a 25-room mansion, which once belonged to Julie Andrews, on 200 acres of land in Mullingar, about 60 miles from Dublin.
Donleavy married Valerie Heron, with whom he had a son, Philip; and a daughter, Karen. After his divorce from Heron, he married Mary Wilson Price in 1970 with whom he had a daughter, Rebecca; and son, Rory. Price and Donleavy were divorced in the 1980s.
Donleavy's life seemed to center around wild friends who provoked even wilder events, which he faithfully documented in his books. J.P. Donleavy's Ireland chronicles the years between Donleavy's move to Dublin in 1946 as a student and the publication of The Ginger Man in 1955. "More than just a string of drinking stories," wrote Kevin Scanlon in Maclean's, "the book documents Donleavy's metamorphosis from young American to Irish artist. And like the convert who embraces a religion more fervently than its priests, Donleavy frequently sounds more Irish than the Irish themselves. It is a joyous, passionate and resonant cry."
The Ginger Man
Donleavy's first book was initially rejected by nearly 50 publishers. The Ginger Man is the story of Sebastian Dangerfield, "a solitary outsider in a hostile society who is motivated by greed, prurience, and envy," noted a reviewer for Contemporary Literary Criticism. Dangerfield "spends most of his time pursuing women and alcohol while neglecting his wife, child, and law studies, and he aspires to upper-class status but is unwilling to compromise his nonconformist nature to attain financial success." Donleavy wrote the book, noted Ginny Dougary of The Times, using "a style that was as arresting as his hero: a combination of whiplash narrative and stream of consciousness, punctuated by the four-line haiku that were to become his trademark."
After several years of gathering rejections for the manuscript, the book finally found a publisher at Olympia Press in 1955. Without Donleavy's consent, the book was placed in the pornographic Travlers Companion series. This prompted the author to end his agreement with Olympia. Later Olympia sued an English publisher for breach of contract over the publication of a less offensive version of the book in 1956. The ensuing legal battle ended in 1979, when Donleavy bought the bankrupt company. The controversy disheartened and depressed Donleavy, who later told Thomas E. Kennedy of Literary Review, he had become something of a hermit. "As this litigation increased," Donleavy said, "my withdrawal from the world increased. Howard Hughes and his reclusive behavior in his life was no mystery to me."
A complete, uncut version of The Ginger Man was finally published in the United States in 1965. Since then, the book, which has never been out of print in the U.S., has sold several million copies and garnered a cult following. Fans like Robert Redford, Mike Nichols, Sam Spiegel, and John Huston vied for the rights to make film versions of the book, but Donleavy was reluctant to relinquish control of his story. His son Philip worked to produce the film in the early 1990s, but the project was never completed.
Hard Act to Follow
Donleavy followed his bestseller with more than a dozen subsequent novels, plays, works of non-fiction and short stories, but none achieved the same level of success. Many, in fact, drew less-than-favorable comparisons to his first book. Dougary noted that other reviews "have been even more withering. The Observer's verdict on Fairy Tales of New York, for instance, is not untypical: 'An unstoppable flow of self-indulgent drivel.' "
Other critics defended Donleavy. Kennedy argued that critics pan the writer with complaints "that Donleavy merely repeats himself-in fact the theme and content of his books vary greatly, although they do share a vision of death's inevitability and man's dark-comically earnest wish to evade it.… "One book with Donleavy's brand of dark humor is The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners. Published in 1975, the book mocks Victorian etiquette novels with a dose of bathroom humor.
Some of Donleavy's early writing explored genres other than the novel. He wrote short stories, publishing a collection called Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule in 1964. Other writings ended up on stage, including an adaptation of The Ginger Man that was produced in London and Dublin in 1959, and in New York in 1963. Later, he adapted several other novels for the stage, including A Singular Man, which was produced in Cambridge and London in 1964 and Westport, Connecticut, in 1967. The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B made its way to the stage in London in 1981 and in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1985 productions.
Donleavy's writings continued to draw fire. His 1984 book, De Alfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions, Its History, Accoutrements, Rules, Conduct, and Regimen, for example, led critic Andrew Brown, as stated in Contemporary Literary Criticism to comment, "it is pointless to speculate on the reasons this book was written as it was, or published at all. But why should anyone read it? … It is a deliberate attack on language with intent to maim, to remove even the possibility of meaning. It is the literary equivalent of heavy metal music.… "
As he entered his seventies, Donleavy steadily produced novels and attracted praise ranging from tepid to torrid. Donleavy's 1998 book Wrong Information is Being Given Out at Princeton introduced a man who marries into money but finds it isn't what he expected. A Kirkus Reviews writer noted of Donleavy, "the old dog is showing signs of age, but his friends will always be glad he's dropped in to say hello, even if their children find him a trifle unkempt and creepy."
Donleavy's career came full circle with the 1994 publication of The History of The Ginger Man. Seymour Lawrence, Donleavy's editor, told Wendy Smith of Publishers Weekly, "I had heard all these stories-he was living in a cottage without a toilet or heat, he was broke, his wife had just had a baby-and I urged him to write them down." The book, touted as an autobiography, focused on Donleavy's one real claim to fame. As Dougary pointed out, Donleavy's wife and child "seem hardly to exist," in the book, noting that "this lack of domestic detail and tenderness towards those who shared his life most intimately makes his own life seem as exaggerated and one-dimensional as a cartoon. It also gives the impression of a selfish man, forever swept up in his own obsessive quests."
Further Reading on James Patrick Donleavy
Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 1997.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 24, edited by Deborah A. Straub, Gale, 1988.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Daniel G. Marowski and roger Matuz, Gale, 1987.
Contemporary Novelists, edited by Susan Windisch Brown, Gale, 1996.
Booklist, June 1, 1997.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1994; April 15, 1997; October 1, 1998.
Literary Review, Summer 1997.
Maclean's, October 13, 1986.
Newsweek, September 15, 1975.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993; February 28, 1994;April 7, 1997.
Tennis Magazine, July 1995.
The Times, May 28, 1994.
Pure Fiction, http://www.pcug.co.uk (March 19, 1999).