Grad Student from Hell

The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy.  Grove Press.  338 pp.  $16.00.

The Ginger Man was one of the famous dirty books from my youth, published by Olympia Press and occupying the shelves alongside Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and My Life and Loves.  My freshman college roommate in 1966 showed up with everything trendy in the world, and he had a copy of The Ginger Man prominently displayed on his shelves (though he never read it.  He never read any of his books.  He just had them).

My problem was that I couldn’t find the dirty parts.  In those days when everything I knew about sex came from books, I was expert at locating such passages—I’d certainly found everything in the three titles I mentioned—but The Ginger Man was a wasteland to me.  I couldn’t see why Olympia Press had published it.  But author J.P. Donleavy recently died, and the great Dwight Garner wrote an appreciation of him, especially of this book, so I thought I’d go back and have a look.  Jay McInerney, another of my favorites, wrote the forward to this 60th anniversary edition.

I have a feeling that Olympia published it because, although it wasn’t especially erotic, it had a few sexy scenes, and its attitude was one of openness about sex.  The book had apparently been rejected by 50 publishers, probably because of the smattering of sex and some raunchy language.  The bulk of the book is told in an odd stream-of-consciousness, sometimes first person, sometimes third, alternating between the two with no warning, and the writing is lyrical and beautiful.  Though the Ginger Man’s mind is in the gutter much of the time, his language is poetic.  The end of a chapter often breaks into a few lines of verse.

But it’s funny how a book and its narrative can age.  This kind of character, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, brilliant bohemian, who dresses badly, seldom bathes, doesn’t take care of himself at all (as my mother in law once said about someone else, he’s slovenly in his personal hygiene), was all the rage in the sixties, when everybody acted that way—the room where my freshman creative writing class met with Reynolds Price was blue with smoke within minutes of convening, and I was one of the smokers—but now the guy seems dirty, sloppy, and stupid.  And when he screams at his young child for crying, and punches his wife in the face when they quarrel—quite early in the novel—he loses all sympathy from most of us, me in particular.  He goes beyond being a drunken slob.  He becomes an asshole.

That obviously wasn’t Donleavy’s intention.  From the interior monologues we can see that Sebastian Dangerfield—the Ginger Man in question—is actually a sensitive guy with a tender side.  He comes from a well-off American family, and we don’t know why he’s wound up in Dublin to go to law school, probably just because he wanted to get away from bourgeois America and have some adventures.  We assume he’s under pressure from his family to lead a conventional, respectable life—hence his enrollment in law school—and that he’d really rather do something else, though he doesn’t actually do anything other than drink.

So the plot of the novel—such as it is—is Sebastian hanging out with various drinking buddies, dodging landlords, spending not much time with his wife, courting various other women because there’s no responsibility with them.  His parents are on the wife’s side, and try to help out her and their granddaughter as best they can, but they’re not characters in the novel; we don’t hear Sebastian so much as make a phone call to them.  There seems to be a significant break in things when Sebastian’s father dies—will the Ginger Man suddenly become rich?—but that turns out to be a false alarm.  The old man was too smart for him.

Then something happens at the end that makes everything seem to come out right (not his marriage; that’s long been forgotten); Sebastian winds up in London with a drinking friend who has struck it rich to the extent that he’s willing to bankroll all his old buddies, with no apparent end to the largesse.  The fact that this event is unexplained and seems utterly unbelievable doesn’t seem to matter.  The truth is that we all at some point knew a grad student from hell, the guy who gave in to all his anxieties and stayed drunk all the time, and we don’t want him to recover.  This isn’t the guy who goes to AA and gives up smoking and takes up jogging and becomes a brilliant trial lawyer; this is the guy who we see sitting in the same bar twenty years later.  Somehow we don’t want him to change.  We want him forever heading home from the party, his fingers deep brown with nicotine stains, head hazy from booze, stumbling back to the little flat where no woman can live with him for long, musing to himself as he does.

“ . . . Back to the Bovir Road and up the stairs.  Where I always feel I’m going to get a bust in the head from some prowler.  Violence is forever on my mind.  Get the key in this damned evasive hole.  I’ll run the hot water for a cheap sense of warmth and cheer the room a bit with some steam.  A shilling in the meter for sure.  Little comforts, little joys.  Pull back the bedspread, expose the sheets.  And tuck my pillow up and lay me quietly there, ready for the white sky.”

There’s a hangover on the horizon.  That day and every day thereafter.