Ir­ish au­thor of ‘The Gin­ger Man’

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J.P. Don­leavy, the in­cor­ri­gi­ble Ir­ish Amer­i­can au­thor and play­wright whose rib­ald de­but novel “The Gin­ger Man” met scorn, cen­sor­ship and even­tu­ally cel­e­bra­tion as a ground­break­ing clas­sic, has died at age 91.

Don­leavy, a na­tive New Yorker who lived his fi­nal years on an es­tate west of Dublin, died Mon­day in Ireland. His death was con­firmed by per­sonal as­sis­tant Deb­o­rah Goss.

The au­thor of more than a dozen books, he some­times was com­pared to James Joyce as a prose stylist, but also was ad­mired for his sense of hu­mor. “The Gin­ger Man,” first pub­lished in 1955, sold more than 45 mil­lion copies and placed No. 99 on a Mod­ern Li­brary list of the great­est English lan­guage fic­tion of the 20th cen­tury.

“‘The Gin­ger Man’ has un­doubt­edly launched thou­sands of ben­ders, but it has also in­spired scores of writ­ers with its vivid and vis­ceral nar­ra­tive voice and the sheer po­etry of its prose,” Amer­i­can novelist Jay McIn­er­ney wrote in the in­tro­duc­tion for a 2010 reis­sue.

When the novel was pub­lished, author­i­ties tar­geted its pro­fan­ity and graphic sex­ual con­tent. It was banned in Ireland and the United States. Sev­eral pub­lish­ers re­jected the book be­fore it was ac­quired by Paris­based Olympia Press, which spe­cial­ized in ex­plicit and avant-garde ma­te­ri­als. To Don­leavy’s fury, Olympia re­leased the book through an im­print ded­i­cated to pornog­ra­phy.

“The Gin­ger Man” is an am­bling, pi­caresque tale about the ad­ven­tures of Se­bas­tian Danger­field, an Amer­i­can in Dublin af­ter World War II who ne­glects and abuses his wife and child, mooches off his friends, bilks his land­lords, drinks wher­ever he can run up a tab and rarely lets a woman’s ap­pear­ance go un­no­ticed.

“I have dis­cov­ered one of the great ail­ments of Ireland, 67 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion has never been com­pletely naked in their lives,” Se­bas­tian ob­serves. “I am bound to say that this must cause a great deal of the pas­sive agony one sees in the street.”

Of­ten cited as prophetic of the cul­tural revo­lu­tion of the 1960s, “The Gin­ger Man” sold so well that it en­abled Don­leavy to buy Olympia af­ter he and the pub­lisher spent years su­ing each other over rights to the book.

The au­thor ini­tially had less suc­cess adapt­ing “The Gin­ger Man” for the stage. The play opened in Lon­don in 1959 with Richard Har­ris as Danger­field, but closed within days in part be­cause of ob­jec­tions from the Ro­man Catholic Church. A New York pro­duc­tion starred Pa­trick O’Neal, who later opened a Man­hat­tan res­tau­rant and named it af­ter Don­leavy’s book.

“The Gin­ger Man” is also among the most prom­i­nent nov­els never to have been made into a fea­ture film, al­though those who have tried in­clude Robert Red­ford, Mike Ni­chols and Johnny Depp.

Don­leavy, a bearded, green-eyed man who spoke with an Angli­cized ac­cent, never lost his affin­ity for odd and provoca­tive be­hav­ior. Cor­nelius Chris­tian, the pro­tag­o­nist of “A Fairy Tale in New York,” ar­rives at U.S. Cus­toms with his wife’s body in a box. In “A Sin­gu­lar Man,” the wealthy Ge­orge Smith com­poses a will that calls for his es­tate to be auc­tioned off and the pro­ceeds “con­verted to ban­knotes of small de­nom­i­na­tions and placed in a steel re­cep­ta­cle six feet high and one foot in di­am­e­ter.”

Re­view­ing “A Sin­gu­lar Man” in 1963 for the Na­tional Ob­server, a lit­tle-known Hunter S. Thomp­son praised Don­leavy as a “hu­morist in the only sense of the word that has any dig­nity,” one “for­ever at war with de­spair.”

Se­bas­tian Danger­field was based on a class­mate at Trin­ity Col­lege, but Don­leavy seemed to share many of his vices, telling the Associated Press in 1992 that at school “I took my de­gree in drink­ing and har­lotry in the finer pubs of Dublin.”

He was mar­ried and di­vorced twice and was non­cha­lant when in­ter­view­ers noted that his sec­ond wife twice con­ceived chil­dren with other men. He be­came an Ir­ish cit­i­zen in mid­dle age af­ter the gov­ern­ment granted artists tax-ex­empt sta­tus.

“Money, above all things,” Don­leavy re­sponded when asked by the Paris Re­view in 1975 about his mo­ti­va­tions. “Fame goes, but money never does. It’s got its own beauty. It’s never gone to ashes in my mouth. I’ve al­ways exquisitely en­joyed it. And maybe a lit­tle bit of re­venge.”

The son of Ir­ish im­mi­grants, James Pa­trick Don­leavy was born in New York City, wrote po­etry as a child and had some early suc­cess as a painter be­fore turn­ing to fic­tion in his early 20s. As he ex­plained to the Paris Re­view, he thought the novel was his quick­est path to fame and set out to write a book that would “shake the world.”

Don­leavy served in the Navy dur­ing World War II, at­tended Trin­ity in the late 1940s and be­gan work­ing on “The Gin­ger Man” soon af­ter. The au­thor would en­dure a wave of re­jec­tions and re­called a visit to the Bos­ton of­fices of Lit­tle, Brown and Co., which had re­cently pub­lished of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“The edi­tor called me around there on a hot, sweaty af­ter­noon,” he told the Paris Re­view. “He sat me a good dis­tance away from his desk, and the manuscript was in a shad­owy cor­ner of the room. He leaned back in his chair very ner­vously and pointed at the manuscript, with his hand trem­bling, and said, ‘There’s ob­scene li­bel in that book!’ So that was the end of Lit­tle, Brown.”

Don­leavy lived long enough in Ireland to ab­sorb his adopted coun­try’s dark hu­mor about mor­tal­ity. “When I die,” he once wrote, “I want to de­com­pose in a bar­rel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin.” An­other time, he com­posed an epi­taph in rhyme:

“When I’m dead, I hope it may be said: his sins were scar­let, but his books were read.”

Rex Fea­tures

PLAY­WRIGHT AND HU­MORIST J.P. Don­leavy wrote more than a dozen books. Though his rib­ald de­but novel, “The Gin­ger Man,” drew scorn and cen­sor­ship when it was first pub­lished in 1955, it be­came known as a ground­break­ing clas­sic.

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