Thursday, September 14, 2017

If Everything Is Simply Jake then You're Frightened of Death

Another literary giant dead- this time it's J.P. Donleavy who has shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 91. An Irish-American who studied at Trinity College after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War 2, Donleavy was best known for his first novel, 1955's The Ginger Man, a stream-of-consciousness novel widely held to be autobiographical, about an American rogue ostensibly studying law at Trinity. The Ginger Man. first read by Brendan Behan was originally published by the storied (heh) Olympia Press, a French publisher known for its smut as well as its experimental fiction. The Ginger Man straddles this line. The novel is a picaresque, and the main character a sociopathic reprobate who sees women as sexual objects and sources of funds, but the language is glorious. The title of the post is taken from the novel:

“But Jesus, when you don't have any money, the problem is food. When you have money, it's sex. When you have both it's health, you worry about getting rupture or something. If everything is simply jake then you're frightened of death.”

I'm somewhat conflicted about the novel- the misogyny expressed is toxic, but the character comes off as an obnoxious Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Nevertheless, it's a great read, it offers a glimpse of life in postwar-Dublin, life in a country which, albeit poor, was spared the horrors of World War 2.

Donleavy had a knack for salacious grotesquery, The Onion Eaters being a black comedy about an unusually endowed young American inheriting a castle in rural Ireland from his aunt and running into all sorts of bizarre characters, including the titular onion-eaters, who have hatched a scheme to introduce poisonous snakes into Ireland to undermine people's faith in God. This review is spot on- The book reads like Hunter S. Thompson meets Mervyn Peake, or National Lampoon's Animal House in Castle Gormenghast.

The Lady who Liked Clean Restrooms was a slight novel, based on an urban legend, about a Southern belle, Bryn Mawr educated and living in Scarsdale, whose life becomes unraveled through her husband's infidelities and an impending divorce. It's a nice love letter to New York City, and is one of the few Donleavy novels which features a female protagonist and an unambiguously happy ending.

My favorite novel by Donleavy is A Fairy Tale of New York, a 1973 book adapted from a 1961 stage play about a native New Yorker returning to the city with his dead wife after a period of time studying abroad. In order to pay for his wife's funeral expenses, he has to work off the bill at the funeral home. In the course of his work, he meets a rich widow, and embarks on yet another of Donleavy's bawdy picaresques... in this case, being sued by a widow for 'tarting up' her dead husband with an excess of makeup and engaging in petty larceny and a string of seductions. The novel takes a while to warm up to, being written in a stream-of-consciousness style composed largely of sentence fragments. My favorite passage in the book is a dirty, dirty tale about a gentlemanly cook on a naval vessel who entertains his fellow seamen after baking them 'fluffy golden delicious biscuits'. The book also reads as a melancholy love-and-hate letter to the city itself. While it is the sort of place which can crush and dehumanize people, New York, from the lowlands of Brooklyn, past the canyons of Manhattan, to the catacomb hills of the Bronx is the sort of place in which even a young orphan can indulge in self-reinvention: "When I was a little boy. Left in a brand new foster home. I went out playing the afternoon around the block got lost, so busy telling all the other kids a fairy tale of New York. That my real father was a tycoon and my mother a princess."

The novel is exactly the sort of novel which could inspire the greatest Christmas song ever written, a bawdy, funny, melancholy melange.

I will be the first person to admit that Donleavy's prose is an acquired taste, with a lot of 'problematic' content, but I have long been a fan. His was a style and a narrative voice which was inimitable... a style and a narrative voice which I initially disliked until I could catch the cadence, the rhythm of it. His novels certainly warrant a slew of 'trigger warnings', but if you have a high tolerance for depictions of bad behavior, there are gems to be found amidst the sleaze.


Smut Clyde said...

Now that youngster Grant Hart BUGGRIT.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I binge listened to Zen Arcade last night. He was one hell of a drummer, songwriter too.

Anonymous said...

You'll like The Gingerman in Midtown -
They have that quote on the wall.