Thursday, February 23, 2006

who are the ginger men?

G. Peter Browne, J.P. Donleavy, and E.A. Blair

I've been thinking about my major professor in Madison where I did my Master's. He loved good Canadian beer and hated English snobbery, particularly the class snootiness he knew in Oxford (he would say that at meals the well-born sons would say "Please pass the vege... or sorry, please pass the greens." to the working class students.) Very Englishly, he wore the same tweed jacket every day, except that it wasn't always the same one, but an iteration of a bunch of identical ones (how many I don't know). He would fool with a pen knife while speaking to us and once almost cut off the bottom of his tie. We got on well. I learned gobbet-style from him and quickly grew to respect this think-for-yourself style of teaching. On gobbets, see here, here, or for the classic Oxford style, here (a WORD doc from Keble College, Ox).

From him I also learned to love George Orwell's crystal clear writing, the whole antithesis of pedantry, not the best-known novels so much as the essays, short stories, and early writings. And also J. P. Donveavy's Ginger Man.

And today I learn that it's 50 years since that book first appeared and have found (via Arts & Letters Daily) that Joe Keohane has written nicely about it in a Boston Globe article called A man amuck. In the extracts below, note the quote from Orwell and references to Hunter S. Thompson, James Joyce, and Johnny Depp. Note also the conclusion, that the book's hero (anti-hero) is engaged in "resistance for its own sake." Remember this because I'm working on a post about Susan Sontag, the Boer War, and ungentlemanly football (i.e. soccer) fans.


A LITTLE MORE THAN 50 years ago, in a Dublin known for its wild young and its fidgety devout, and a Europe still struggling after years of war, a holy terror by the name of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield was inflicted upon the world. Rich son and busted husband, wife-beater and maudlin romantic, personal friend to Christ and bitter foe to any Papist worth his weight in holy pendants - few knew what to make of him then, even fewer now, but the fact that he's never left us is a measure of his worth.

The Ginger Man tells the raucous story of an Irish-American ex-pat living in bohemian Dublin after the war. His wife, an upper-class English woman with whom he's sired a child, has begun to realize the magnitude of her error. Her husband - 27 years old and capable of great displays of soul and poetical charm - is flunking law at Trinity. Up to his eyeballs in debt, dogged by landlords, soaked with drink, cadging off of friends and strange women, he's as prone to rhapsodize about the sadness and beauty of Ireland as he is to scatter the teeth of her more savage inhabitants.

It's an intoxicating read, quintessentially Irish in its cobbling of joy and sadness, sentimentality and violence. For more than five decades, young readers have had whole literary vistas opened by it, among them the late Hunter S. Thompson, who obsessed over the book as a struggling young writer in New York.

Alive in a way few books are, its combination of gorgeous writing, brilliant comedy, pathos, and unrelenting amorality has made it a cult classic, a rite of passage, practically a literary religion. Or perhaps a literary anti-religion. Dangerfield, like Donleavy's other protagonists, battles relentlessly against a world - to borrow from Orwell - of "smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."

Donleavy himself, who recently turned 80, still lives in Ireland, in a moldering 18th-century mansion previously owned by Julie Andrews and featured in James Joyce's Stephen Hero. A long-awaited film adaptation of The Ginger Man, starring Johnny Depp, is reportedly in the works.

A man of wit, intelligence, and, let's say, adaptive ethics, Dangerfield craves wealth but is constitutionally incapable of working for it; he craves peace, but is hard-wired for bedlam. When neither wealth nor peace come of their own accounts, he sees a conspiracy with himself as the victim.

Perhaps, the point is simply this: resistance for its own sake. Resistance as a moral virtue. As Dangerfield says: "Got to fight. Must resist or go down in the pile." It's an adolescent urge. Society requires conditioning, compromise, obedience. It's liberating to see Dangerfield refuse outright. You know it's a losing fight, and you know you shouldn't be rooting for him, but there you are. And there he is, 50 years later. He hasn't won, but he hasn't lost either. "When I die," Dangerfield muses late in the book, "I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin. I wonder would they know it was me?"

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