Review | The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy

This classic twentieth century Irish novel has been rereleased in a special hardback edition by Lilliput Press in time for the sixtieth anniversary of its publication.

The Ginger Man follows the story of Sebastian Dangerfield, an incorrigible American G.I., as he drinks, steals, fights and womanises his way around 1950s Dublin. Purportedly studying for his degree in Trinity College, Dangerfield instead finds elaborate and self-destructive ways to squander what little money he and his young family have left. Dangerfield is a rogue, a devil, and his ribald, picaresque wanderings are as laugh-out-loud funny as often as they are horrifying. He is a protagonist that challenges, and, at times, exceeds the reader’s sympathy – but is all the more captivating for that.

Lilliput-TheGingerMan-Cover.inddFamously rejected by over thirty publishers, all of whom were concerned about the novel’s scandalous content, The Olympia Press in Paris eventually agreed to publish it. Henry Miller appears to have had quite an influence on Donleavy in the writing of this book, seen both in its literary inventiveness, and especially in his depiction of explicit language and sex. Donleavy writes these passages with particular glee, as if taunting the censors, daring them to be outraged. Although altered versions went on sale in the UK and America, unsurprisingly, the book was banned in Ireland. More than the explicit content, perhaps its biggest crime was the unflattering depiction of Dublin. Time and again, Donleavy’s characters complain about what a depressing, miserable place Ireland is, such as when Sebastian’s wife, Marion, bemoans: ‘Such a vulgar country . . . Children running barefoot in the streets in the middle of winter and men wagging their things at you from doorways. Disgusting.’ Like Joyce and Frank O’ Connor before him, Donleavy was banned for tugging the veil away from De Valera’s supposed Gaelic Eden, and revealing the true face of Ireland – a place where, in one memorable scene, shit literally falls from the sky.

Other than the creation of such a complex and iconic antihero in Sebastian Dangerfield, Donleavy’s other great achievement in The Ginger Man is the writing itself. Written in a distinctive and inimitable style, the sentences are clipped, truncated, and the narrative jumps – seemingly at random – between third person, stream-of-consciousness, standard first person, and back to third person again. It helps create a wonderfully immersive and immediate effect that plunges the reader into Dangerfield’s wounded and entitled mind: ‘My God, it’s absolutely awful. Be made for the world. But the world was made for me. Here long before I arrived and they spend years getting it ready. Something got mixed up with my assets.’


Also included in this edition are supplementary materials, including an earnest – if slight – foreword by the actor Johnny Depp; an insightful introduction by the writer Sean O’ Reilly, and a warm afterword by Bob Mitchell about meeting Donleavy. Arguably the highlight of this bonus material, however, is an essay by Bill Dunn on the complex and fraught publishing history of The Ginger Man – a history as dramatic and, at times, absurd as the life of Sebastian Dangerfield himself.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Donleavy said on sitting down to write The Ginger Man: ‘I decided to write a novel that would shake the world’. He certainly did. And this beautiful edition – a future collector’s item, no doubt – does justice to what is a classic Irish novel.

The Ginger Man: The Sixtieth Anniversary Edition can be ordered here.


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