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The Natural Science of a Singular Gentleman

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Tellingly, the author once described the absurdist world of The Onion Eaters as “just a kind of documentary about Ireland, of Irish life in 1945.” Those who have this work down as a Flann O’Brien-esque piece of whimsy – a kind of Gaelic Gormenghast – may be shocked by such claims of literalism. This reader certainly is. Moreover, Donleavy also asserts that works such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot contain more documentary elements than people may imagine. But then, those who read the author’s autobiographical works, such as J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland in All of Her Sins and Some of Her Graces, with its stories of waterlogged burrows of bacchanalia and summarily pissed-upon radiograms (someone’s response to a hated record, in case you are wondering), may notice how little Donleavy had to amplify reality. It becomes clear that we are dealing with a man whose talent for witnessing the exotic is exceeded only by his gift for composing fiction from these experiences.

“For example, if you went to a party, you would be exposed to various kinds of stimulus, or behaviour, which you would store in your memory and then note down, as if you were a reporter. What fiction constitutes, in a way, is a form of journalism. I have always thought that journalists often underestimate the literary potential of the situations they experience in their working lives; that they think there’s something more important they could be doing, or that real life is taking place elsewhere. But they are actually processing fascinating raw material. Just as authors do, they actually use words as effectively as possible to communicate their thoughts to the public.”

This sentiment seems resoundingly relevant when we consider J.P. Donleavy’s influence upon ‘hyper-journalistic’ writers like Hunter S. Thompson, who once wrote Donleavy a touchingly sweet fan letter, and Iain Sinclair, who was, apparently, so inspired by The Ginger Man and James Joyce’s proto-psychogeography, that he went to study at Trinity College Dublin.

“Yes, I believe that Hunter S. Thompson did write to me”, says a seemingly gratified Donleavy. “Well, no matter how elegantly an author sculpts his subject matter, he is nothing more than a high-flying journalist. One that is probably wasting more paper than most people in order to express themselves!” Such resistance to self-aggrandisement once led Donleavy to assert to an apparently incredulous interviewer that authors are no more sensitive than garbage collectors.

Elevated journalist or author, there is a sense from the first paragraph of his masterly early novel The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B that you are in the deft hands of what his brother, T.J. Donleavy, once described as “a natural writer”. There is a prophetic passage in the The History of the Ginger Man, where his smiling watchfulness inspires a friend in the navy to predict a literary future for Donleavy. His habit of ghost writing his classmates’ assignments in the Naval Academy Preparatory School – a quirk which led to a teacher detecting a talented anonymous writer and devotee of James Joyce in the class – may have buttressed this impression.

Also, in The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, a cockle-warmingly kind working girl called Breda tells young Balthazar: “You’re an interested one. Like someone who would write a book.” Did a lot of people in his early life have him down as a writer, or remark upon a certain remove from workaday life? “Well, on a social level, I often felt myself to be in a difficult position. In some ways, I could be pretty outspoken, and would brook no dissent!” he announces in cod theatrical tones. “I know I found difficulty in socialising with Americans when I first arrived back from Trinity College in the early fifties. But then, it was an advantage for my accent to be slightly Anglicised because it would be an explanation as to why I would be a bit foreign in my manner. I tried to get on in America and stay there, but I realized that it was never going to work for me. There was no way you could be accepted as an author and get something like The Ginger Man published. Remember, this was the McCarthy era, so America was closed to me in a literary sense.” Lacerated by literary rejection, Donleavy was unable to speak for some ten weeks after leaving America. He communicated by writing things down on paper, and has subsequently described himself as being close to death back then. Donleavy’s self-avowed dogmatic side surfaces to amusing effect in A Fairy Tale of New York whose hero, Cornelius Christian, is too sardonically authentic to join the herd in a redneck-riddled land. He also fakes mutism to avoid losing his job.

I wonder if Donleavy set out to expose America’s reactionary underbelly in A Fairy Tale of New York? After all, the book contains pricelessly subversive set piece scenes such as the one where Cornelius admits to his go-getting industrialist boss – for whom he writes zippy advertising slogans – that he believes himself to be having a nervous breakdown. Cornelius also opines that black and Jewish folk should be running America. “I would be more like an observer than standing in judgement,” he muses. “I was accepting the situation in America and trying to describe it as best I could; just building a story and writing about the social scenery in New York City. Always describing, rather than judging.”

Although Donleavy favours this anthropological approach, and seems averse to tub-thumping, there are certain recurrent themes in his work, such as a hatred of bullying and a desire for upward mobility on the part of many of his chief protagonists. There is also the oft-repeated recollection in Donleavy’s autobiographical writing that his Irish parents grew up “without a pot to piss in”. This yen for the high life appears to be a powerful undercurrent in his work. And yet it seems to run against a passionate rejection of all forms of snobbery.

“That sensitivity to social differences was natural for me, growing up in (the salubrious neighbourhood of Woodlawn in the Bronx) New York City. Back then, my closest pal was a boy called Thomas Gill. One day, I was looking for him, and his father said to me: ‘Tommy’s not around. He’s at Glen Isle Casino: would you like to go out there?’ I said: ‘Yes please, I’d like to see Tommy’. So he said: ‘Come with me – I’m going out there. Here’s the car now. I have to go and do other things, but the car is at your disposal’. So I got into this great big car and I could see the green tint on the window and feel the weight of this huge machine. And you could just tell that the car was bullet-proofed. But what I was not prepared for, as we drove down 59th Street to 5th Avenue, was how the police immediately stopped the traffic. I just could not understand this; that the car belonged to someone who was recognized by all of the policemen. The traffic ahead had been stopped in advance – as I’m on my way to see my pal! So I said to Tommy when I arrived: ‘What the hell is going on with this car?’ And he said: ‘You were in the Sheriff of New York’s car.’ No one in New York knew the city had a sheriff for a start! Yet New York City has a sheriff – like in a western town. I was intrigued by this.

“But then, this respectable American world was also tinged with Mafia murkiness, which was always an uncomfortable and mysterious thing for me. And I had no idea, as a child, that I was growing up alongside the Mafia. There were a couple of Mafia families, who were neighbours, and I would be invited in to have lunch with their children, who were my pals. Years later, whenever I met any of these old friends by chance, their first words to me – which served as a greeting – were: ‘Is anyone bothering you?’ And I knew that, if I mentioned any names, they were going to be found in some swamp with about twelve bullets in them!”

This Mafia theme bled into A Fairy Tale of New York, when some hoodlums attempt obliquely to extort cash from Vine, the successful undertaker who takes the chief character, Cornelius Christian, under his opulently-plumed wing. “Oh yes, that’s right. Also, the passwords and the language that these Mafia people used always fascinated me and would spin me off into another world.”

From where else did he cull influences in his early life? “The other big thing in one’s life was New York Athletic Club. [One of Donleavy’s boxing instructors was Arthur Donovan - the man who trained Sugar Ray Robinson]. It was a fabulous oasis for me. I became a junior member, and I am probably the longest-serving member of that place now,” he laughs. “That was always somewhere that provided interesting associations, and these surfaced in my work years later.”

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 10th, 2012.