Donleavy, J(ames) P(atrick) 1926-
DONLEAVY, J(ames) P(atrick) 1926-
PERSONAL: Born April 23, 1926, in Brooklyn, NY; became Irish citizen, 1967; son of James Patrick and Margaret Donleavy; married Valerie Heron (divorced, 1969); married Mary Wilson Price (an actress), 1970 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Philip, Karen; (second marriage) Rebecca Wallis, Rory. Education: Attended Trinity College, Dublin, 1946-49.
ADDRESSES: Home—Levington Park, Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland.
CAREER: Writer and playwright. Founder with son Philip Donleavy and producer Robert Mitchell of De Alfonce Tennis Association for the Promotion of the Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions; raises cattle; painter who has exhibited his work in London. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve, served in World War II.
AWARDS, HONORS: Most Promising Playwright Award, London Evening Standard, 1961, for Fairy Tales of New York; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, 1961-62, for two plays, The Ginger Man and Fairy Tales of New York; citation from National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1975; American Academy of Arts and Letters grantee, 1975; Worldfest Houston Gold Award, 1992; Cine Golden Eagle Award for writer and narrator, 1993.
The Ginger Man (novel), Olympia Press (Paris, France), 1955, published with introduction by Arland Ussher, Spearman (London, England), 1956, McDowell, Obolensky (New York, NY), 1958; complete and unexpurgated edition, Corgi (London, England), 1963, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1965; reprinted with original illustrations by Graham McCallum, Edito-Service (Geneva, Switzerland), 1973; limited edition with illustrations by Skip Liepke, Franklin Library (Franklin Center, PA), 1978.
A Singular Man (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1963.
Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule (short stories), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1964.
The Saddest Summer of Samuel S (novel), Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1966.
The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (novel), Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1968.
The Onion Eaters (novel), Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1971.
A Fairy Tale of New York (novel), Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1973.
The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (novel), illustrations by Jim Campbell, Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1977.
Schultz (novel), Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1979.
Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule and The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, Dell (New York, NY), 1979.
Leila: Further in the Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (novel; sequel to The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman), Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1983, published as limited edition signed by Donleavy with "A Special Message for the First Edition from J. P. Donleavy," Franklin Library (Franklin Center, PA), 1983, published in England as Leila: Further in the Life and Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, Allen Lane (London, England), 1983.
Are You Listening, Rabbi Loew? (novel; sequel to Schultz), Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman (novel; sequel to Leila), Viking (New York, NY), 1990.
The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumored About Around New York (novella), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1997.
Wrong Information Is Being Given Out at Princeton, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 1998.
The Ginger Man (adaptation of his novel of same title; first produced at Fortune Theatre, London, September 15, 1959; produced at Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, October 26, 1959; produced on Broadway at Orpheum Theatre, November 21, 1963; contains introduction "What They Did in Dublin"; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1961, published in England as What They Did in Dublin with The Ginger Man, MacGibbon and Kee (London), 1962 (also see below).
Fairy Tales of New York (adaptation of his novel A Fairy Tale of New York; first produced at Comedy Theatre, London, January 24, 1961; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1961.
A Singular Man (first produced at Comedy Theatre, October 21, 1964; produced at Westport County [CT] Playhouse, September 4, 1967; also see below), first published in 1964, Bodley Head (London, England), 1965.
The Plays of J. P. Donleavy (with a preface by the author; contains What They Did in Dublin with The Ginger Man, The Ginger Man, Fairy Tales of New York,A Singular Man, and The Saddest Summer of Samuel S), photographs of productions by Lewis Morley, Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1972.
The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (adaptation of his novel of same title), first produced in London, 1981, produced in Norfolk, VA, at Virginia Stage Company, 1986.
Also author of radio play, Helen, BBC, 1956.
The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners, illustrations by the author, Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1975.
De Alfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions, Its History, Accoutrements, Rules, Conduct, and Regimen, Dutton/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1984.
J. P. Donleavy's Ireland: In All Her Sins and in Some of Her Graces, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.
A Singular Country, Ryan (Peterborough, England), 1989, Norton (New York, NY), 1990.
The History of the Ginger Man, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1994.
An Author and His Image: The Collected Shorter Pieces, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
Contributor of short fiction and essays to Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Queen, Saturday Evening Post, and Saturday Review.
SIDELIGHTS: "If there is an archetypal post-World War II American writer-in-exile it may well be James Patrick Donleavy," writes William E. Grant in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. The son of Irish immigrant parents, J. P. Donleavy renounced the America of their dreams for an Ireland of his own, and became a citizen when Ireland granted tax-free status to its authors. Although literary success came several years after the publication of his stylistically innovative first novel, The Ginger Man, Donleavy is now internationally recognized for having written what many consider to be a modern classic. Referring to the "sense of exile and alienation that seems to haunt his life as well as his work," Grant observes that "even achieving the literary success he thought America would deny him has not lessened his alienation from his country, though it has enhanced the style in which he expresses his exile status." Donleavy now writes at his expansive two-hundred-year-old manor situated on nearly two hundred acres in County Westmeath. "He's a sort of born-again Irishman who enthusiastically embraces the life of a man of letters and leisure, adopting not only an Irish country estate but also the appropriate deportment and brogue," says Peter Ross in the Detroit News. "He also happens to be one of the funniest and most audacious writers around."
Donleavy's decision to emigrate, although precipitated by difficulty finding a publisher for his first novel, appears to have been the result of a slowly evolving dissatisfaction with what he refers to in his Atlantic Monthly essay, "An Expatriate Looks at America," as "a country corrosive of the spirit." Donleavy explains: "Each time I go to these United States I start anew trying to figure them out. After two weeks I decide that like anywhere, greed, lust and envy make them work. But in America it is big greed, big lust, big envy." Although Donleavy remembers his childhood in the Bronx as peaceful, New York City became an increasingly threatening presence, and the ubiquitous violence made him fearful of death there. He recalls in the Atlantic Monthly that "something in one's bowels was saying no to this land. Where my childhood friends were growing up, just as their parents did, to be trapped trembling and terrified in a nightmare." Skeptical of America's treatment of its artists as well, Donleavy felt at the outset of his career that he stood little chance of achieving literary success in a land he describes in the Atlantic Monthly as a place "where your media mesmerized brain shuts off when the media does." He adds, "And if I stayed they would, without even trying, or knowing, kill me."
Donleavy was resolved to achieve recognition and relates in a Paris Review interview with Molly McKaughan: "I realized that the only way you could ever tackle the world was to write something that no one could hold off, a book that would go everywhere, into everyone's hands. And I decided then to write a novel which would shake the world. I shook my fist and said I would do it." That novel, The Ginger Man, is set in post-World War II Dublin and details the hedonistic existence of Sebastian Dangerfield who, according to Alfred Rushton in the Toronto Globe and Mail, gave "moral turpitude a new lease on life." While still a student, Donleavy began crafting the novel, but he returned to New York to complete and publish it. He indicates in the Paris Review that Scribners, to whom he first took the manuscript, thought it was one of the best ever brought to them; its content, however, prevented them from publishing it. Forty-five publishers rejected the novel because they "thought it was a dirty book—scatological, unreadable, obscene," Donleavy tells David Remnick in the Washington Post. "My life literally depended on getting this book into print, and when I couldn't, it just drove me out of America."
In the Paris Review, Donleavy recalls his reluctance to edit The Ginger Man into acceptability: "I had a sense that the book held itself together on the basis of these scatological parts. That its life was in these parts. And I was quite aware that cutting them would be severely damaging to it." Brendan Behan, the legendary Irish playwright and patriot with whom Donleavy became friends during his Dublin days, suggested sending the manuscript to the Olympia Press in Paris, where it eventually was accepted. Following its publication as part of an overtly pornographic series, however, a lengthy legal battle ensued in which Donleavy emerged as the owner of the publishing house. Despite "the potential for literary damage, publication by Olympia Press had the generally salutary effect of establishing the unexpurgated edition of The Ginger Man as an underground classic before complete editions became available," notes Grant. In order to ensure the novel's publication in England, though, and to get it recognized and reviewed, Donleavy agreed to certain cuts, stating in the Paris Review: "It was an act of pure practicality. If someone wanted to read the unexpurgated edition, they could buy it in Paris. I had published it as I had written it, so it wasn't wrong, then, to publish it to establish my reputation."
Although Donleavy's reputation had to endure both court battles and censors, his experience as a litigant proved invaluable in negotiating subsequent contracts with publishers. "He's very courtly, but he's a very sharp businessman," comments Donleavy's longtime publisher Seymour Lawrence, according to Samuel Allis in the Washington Post. "He does all of his negotiating and, unlike most authors, he understands copyrights. He drives a hard bargain, but he's the most professional author I've ever known." Donleavy's legal and business dealings have also given him a special sense of his profession. Money, says the author in the Paris Review, has a dramatic effect upon his writing: "In fact, I would say that money is everything in my profession. One's mind almost becomes a vast cash register. . . . Tositata desk and think, and write, you must have peace, and to buy peace costs a fortune."
In 1994 Donleavy's The History of the Ginger Man was published. In the book Donleavy chronicles his efforts to publish The Ginger Man and recounts his struggles to become a writer while supporting his family. The author also reprints his entire correspondence with Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias, with whom Donleavy waged a protracted battle for the rights to the novel. Even before the publication of The History of the Ginger Man, critics recognized the autobiographical aspects of Donleavy's best-known novel. Sally Eckhoff, writing in the Voice Literary Supplement, observes: "In Dangerfield, Donleavy created his prototypical diver into Irish society. Like his hero, the author has a history of Olympic pub-crawling—right down there under the rug with Flann O'Brien." Eckhoff also notes that Donleavy's writing exhibits a strong sense of setting. "Most of The Ginger Man," writes Eckhoff, "takes place in Dublin—the world of dreams, populated by gullible shopkeepers, screaming kids, crooked priests, affectionate laundrywomen with time on their hands, and a pub on every corner with a weird name like 'The Bleeding Horse.'"
Critics were unsure at first how to categorize Donleavy and The Ginger Man. Grant observes that the critical establishment "debated whether Donleavy belonged with Britain's Angry Young Men, America's black humorists, or France's existentialists." In his Doings and Undoings, Norman Podhoretz calls The Ginger Man "fundamentally a book without hope." Similarly, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, Ihab Hassan considers the novel to be "full of gusto, seething with life, but its energy may be the energy of negation, and its vitality has a nasty edge." The nihilism in The Ginger Man "refers us to the postwar, existential era," states Hassan. "Traditional values are not in the process of dying, they have ceased entirely to operate, and their stark absence leaves men to shift for themselves as best they can."
The "freshness" of the characterization of Sebastian Dangerfield was one of the most critically acclaimed aspects of the novel, notes Grant, who adds that some critics recognized that the character "existed almost totally outside any system of ideas." Eckhoff calls The Ginger Man "a hilarious, cruel, compassionate book."
Despite the commercial success of Donleavy's subsequent work, the critics generally consider his reputation to rest solely on The Ginger Man. "So far as most critics and reviewers are concerned, the later works have been but pale shadows of the first brilliant success, and the publication of each succeeding novel has seen a decline in critical attention," writes Grant. Some critics believe that Donleavy has run out of ideas, that he is refurbishing old material, reworking or resurrecting earlier work. For instance, in a Harper's review of The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, Michael Malone compares a Donleavy book to Guinness stout: "It's distinctive, it's carbonated, it's brimmed with what Hazlitt called 'gusto,' and those who like it can drink it forever. The ingredients never change." Donleavy pays attention to the critics only in a "fairly superficial way" because, as he says in the Paris Review, "A writer must always be aware that he has to be a supreme critic. . . . And only his judgment matters." Allis indicates, however, that Donleavy "displays something close to hostility toward academics and the people who review his books and plays," and that he discourages academic interest in his work because he says, "I never want [to] get that self-conscious of my literary position." Grant suggests that "though none individually rivals the first masterpiece, several of these later works deserve wider attention than they have had from the American reading public and critical establishment alike."
Critics point to several characteristics of The Ginger Man that surface in Donleavy's later work. Beneath the bawdy humor lies an inherent despondency, with licentiousness masking the more profound search for love; bizarre, eccentric characters, around whom his books revolve, tend to be alienated, victimized by life, and weakened by impending death. "The novels range from variations of the humorous—slapstick, scatological, sardonic—to the sentimental in an idiosyncratic style that conveys the pressure of time on language," writes Thomas LeClair in Contemporary Literature. "But such features of Donleavy's work are finally extensions of and returns to death, the test of man's mettle in landscapes made pale by death's presence."
An awareness of death figures significantly in Donleavy's work, and the question Donleavy's heroes "answer in their own, progressively inefficacious ways," writes LeClair in Twentieth Century Literature, is, "How does a man weakened by an awareness of death survive in a world experienced as magical with malevolence?" LeClair observes that "to evade his consciousness of mortality, Sebastian Dangerfield . . . lives a hedonistic life in the present and dreams of relaxed ease for the future"; and the rich and reclusive George Smith of Donleavy's A Singular Man, who is absorbed with the idea of death and even builds his own mausoleum, "separates himself from the world in a parody of Howard Hughes' and John Paul Getty's attempts to avoid the disease of life." LeClair notes in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction that "the heroes of The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, and The Onion Eaters all attempt to overcome their fear of their own death or their sadness about the death of others through love."
According to Grant, the themes of love and loss are also important in much of Donleavy's work. The Saddest Summer of Samuel S is about an eminent literary figure in the United States who undergoes psychoanalysis in Vienna in order to live a more conventional life. Of this novel, Grant writes: "Longing for a love he has never had and cannot find because in spite of his need he cannot give, Samuel S is the victim of a life that cannot be lived over and a destiny that cannot be changed." The character, observes Grant, is withdrawn and "trapped in a life-in-death state of mind with neither belief nor passion to motivate him." Similarly, in The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, a novel that details the lonely life of a wealthy young man whose marriage collapses, the hero is "separated from those he loves . . . and seeks completion by loving others, a simple but impossible quest," says Shaun O'Connell in the Nation. Robert Scholes observes in the Saturday Review that although this "shy and gentle" character seeks love, "it proves elusive, even harder to keep than to find." And O'Connell sees in Donleavy "the joy of the artist who can embody his vision, however bleak, the self-certainty of the writer who can so eloquently move his hero to name his pain."
However, writing in the Washington Post Book World about Donleavy's The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, a novel in which a young aristocrat is thwarted in several of his attempts at love, Curt Suplee suggests that "Donleavy does not write novels so much as Oedipal fairy tales: semi-realistic fables in which the same patterns are obsessively reenacted. Invariably, a young man finds himself trapped in a society dominated by hostile father-figures and devoid of the uncritical comfort afforded by mothers. . . . Every time the young man attempts to assert his ego in this world, he fails or is beaten, and flees to succour—either to the manic medium of alcohol or the overt mother-surrogates who provide sex and self-esteem, for a while." O'Connell finds, though, that Donleavy's characters "press the possibilities of life with high style and win many tactical victories of great hilarity . . . before they are defeated," and he believes that "Donleavy's vision of sadness seems earned, won by a search of all the possible routes toward happiness."
Focusing on the bawdy humor in Donleavy's work, critics sometimes fault it for what they consider to be gratuitously lewd language and a reliance upon sexual slapstick. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer of The Onion Eaters, for instance, states that "the scenes of violence and the sexual encounters suggest an attitude to the human body and its functions, weaknesses and pleasures, which is anything but tender, compassionate, or celebratory." The novel is about a young and handsome character named Clayton Claw Clever Clementine, who in addition to being somewhat freakishly over-endowed sexually, has inherited an Irish manor and must confront what a New Statesman contributor refers to as a "bizarre collection of servants and . . . an ever-growing crew of sex-obsessed weirdies." Guy Davenport finds in the National Review that "Donleavy is uninterruptedly bawdy, yet his obscenity is so grand and so open, that it rises above giving offense into a realm of its own, unchallenged and wild."
Critics also recognize, however, that Donleavy's humor belies an inherent sadness. "Donleavy writes sad and lonely books," says R. Z. Sheppard in a Time review of The Onion Eaters. Sheppard finds that Donleavy's fictional worlds are "closed worlds, their boundaries no more distant than the most prominent erectile tissue. Alone, without context or meaning, the flesh is all." Sheppard suggests that the absence of meaning in the novel, as well as its "animal warmth, at once grotesque and touching," is perhaps Donleavy's way of asserting that "this warmth is the only thing about which we can be certain."
Writing in Newsweek about Donleavy's nonfiction book The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners, Arthur Cooper describes Donleavy's humor: "Like Mel Brooks, he knows that bad taste is merely a joke that doesn't get a laugh. And like Brooks, Donleavy's demonic humor is utterly democratic, thrusting the needle into everyone regardless of race, creed, color, or ability to control one's bowels." Referring to the book as "a collection of bilious and often funny rules for living," Melvin Maddocks observes in Time that "between the lines, Donleavy's diatribes manage to say more." Maddocks believes that Donleavy's "visions of grace, chivalry and order" reveal the author as "an inverted romantic, profoundly sad beneath his disguise because he and the world are no better than they happen to be."
Similarly, in a Midwest Quarterly assessment of The Unexpurgated Code, Charles G. Masinton suggests that "Donleavy normally proceeds by means of instinct, inspiration, and intuition—the tools of a romantic artist. He aims to produce belly laughs and . . . a sympathetic response to his chief characters; he does not set out to impose order and rationality on experience. And instead of elevated language (which he often parodies quite effectively), he records with great skill an earthy vernacular full of both comic and lyric possibilities." While Grant believes that Donleavy's "characteristic tone of pessimism, melancholia, alienation, and human failure . . . suggest Jonathan Swift's misanthropic humor," he also finds it reminiscent of Mark Twain's later work, "which combines pessimism and humor in an elegiac, melancholic, and misanthropic voice."
In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, David Hirson laments that while a unique blend of lyricism and farce still characterize Donleavy's later novels, his humor has begun to be derived almost exclusively from overkill. An example is Are You Listening, Rabbi Loew. Despite its "dauntingly energetic prose," Hirson believes that the novel ultimately wears out the reader. Writes Hirson, "Funny though boorishness, bodily functions and excessive profanity can be, the effect, finally, is of a joke that takes too long in the telling, a numbingly protracted jape."
The style and language of Donleavy's fiction has attracted a great deal of critical attention over the years. Notes Thomas Lask, "critics keep citing his first book . . . some saying that nothing after it has equaled that first effort, and objecting to his language, which has a syntax of its own, without connectives or prepositions, shifting tense at will." Stylistically innovative, The Ginger Man employs not only a shifting point of view (from first to third person) so that Dangerfield becomes both observer and observed but, according to Grant, it "relies on rapidly moving, nearly staccato sentence fragments which capture brilliantly the chaotic and fragmented qualities of Dangerfield's world." In a Times Literary Supplement review of That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman (the third volume in the trilogy that began with The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman), Mark Sanderson observes that Donleavy's unusual use of language masks the thinness of the novel's plot. "The stylistic tics remain," writes Sanderson, "a fondness for the present continuous; hyphens reserved for double-barreled surnames; each chapter rounded off by a homespun haiku; semi-colons and question marks entirely absent."
Donleavy explains that his use of language is "designed to reflect the way the mind works," says Lask in a New York Times review of Schultz, a novel about the exploits of an American producer of vulgar plays in London. In the Paris Review, Donleavy offers a more detailed explanation: "You're trying to get what you've written on your page into a reader's mind as quickly as possible, and to keep them seeing it. That is why I use the short, truncated telegraphic sentences. They are the most efficient use of language, and I think the brain puts words together the way I do."
Some critics think Donleavy has become a "prisoner of style," says Paul Abelman in the Spectator, that "he has never escaped from the prose techniques which he invented for his fine first novel." Abelman believes that "the style of the later books is not really that of The Ginger Man at all but simply one that employs superficial aspects of it and neglects the lyrical essence." Unlike The Ginger Man, says Abelman, the other books are "monster prose poems founded on the most plodding, leaden metrical foot known to the English language [the spondee—two stressed syllables regularly repeated]." Abelman, though, considers Donleavy "possibly the greatest lyrical humorist to emerge since the war," and adds that he "has that to his credit which few living writers can claim: a modern classic."
Although Donleavy indicates to Thomas Lask in the New York Times that he's as "delighted" with The Ginger Man as when he first wrote it, he feels that his subsequent books keep The Ginger Man alive. Commenting to Remnick that he does not feel The Ginger Man represents his "best work," Donleavy states, "When I pick it up and read it now critically as a piece of writing, in technical terms, it doesn't compare to later books." Acknowledging in the Paris Reviewthat his subsequent writing has not provided the pleasure that The Ginger Man did, Donleavy says: "I don't think you ever have that again. When an author's recognized, all that leaves him, because that's what he's needed to force himself to go through the terrible agony of being unknown and being able to face the world and the fact that it's a giant, vast place where nearly every man is saying: Dear God, hear my tiny voice."
Another point of interest for critics of Donleavy's writing is the effect that leaving the United States for Ireland has had on the author. Grant believes that "Donleavy remains essentially the exile who once wrote of America, 'there it goes, a runaway horse, with no one in control.'" Donleavy recalls in his Atlantic Monthly essay, that "each time you arrive anew in America, you find how small you are and how dismally you impress against the giantness and power of this country where you are so obviously, and with millions like yourself, so totally fatally expendable." Grant notes that this vision is often expressed in Donleavy's portrayal of the United States as a nightmare. In A Fairy Tale of New York, for instance, the wife of the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised, and European-educated Cornelius Christian dies on their way to New York; and without money or friends, Christian is taken advantage of by everyone. "Affection, loathing, nostalgia and fear are the main components of the attitude he brings to bear upon his native place," writes Julian Moynahan in the Washington Post Book World, adding that "hidden away in the book for those who can find it is a good deal of personal revelation, a good deal of alembicated and metamorphosed autobiography." As D. Keith Mano states in the New York Times Book Review, the book is "about social impotence and despair. Valleys of humiliation, sloughs of despond." The story focuses on the brutality of New York City; and Christian, who lacks the funds to move, sees emigration as the only answer to his liberation. "Yet Donleavy's thunderous, superb humor has the efficacy of grace," says Mano. "It heals and conquers and ratifies." And a Times Literary Supplement contributor, who remarks that "few writers know how to enjoy verbal promiscuity like . . . Donleavy," considers that "it is largely because of the confidence of the style, too, that you come out of the welter of failure and misery feeling good—nastiness is inevitably laced with hilarity and sentiment in his telling it."
Moving to Ireland changed his life "utterly," Donleavy says in the Paris Review, adding, "It also romanticized the United States for me so that it became a subject for me as a writer." However, in the Atlantic Monthly, Donleavy speaks about the indelibility of his American beginnings: "As far away as you may go, or as foreign as your life can ever become, there is something that always stays stained American in you." About living among the Irish, however, Donleavy remarks in a Publishers Weekly interview: "Literally, everywhere you go here, they're half nuts. It's very tough to discover real insanity, because the whole race is like that, and, indeed, this is the place to come if you're not right in the head."
John Kelly writes in the Times Literary Supplement that "during a disconsolate return to his native America," Donleavy discovered that "Ireland is a state of mind" and his J. P. Donleavy's Ireland: In All Her Sins and in Some of Her Graces "attempts a description of that state of mind." Donleavy recreates his own first exposure to the postwar Dublin that, says Kelly, provided the "raw material" for "Donleavy's myth-making imagination." In a Toronto Globe and Mail review of the book, Rushton thinks that "Donleavy belongs to the people he describes, and acknowledges their kinship by giving them their full due." As Kevin E. Gallagher comments in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, it is "a love story that, I think never ends for anyone who cares, like this, about a place."
"In [Donleavy's] early seventies, he . . . embarked on what is said to be a series of short novels about New York City," reports Jonathan Yardley in New York Times Book Review. Among them are 1997's The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to be Rumored About Around New York and the following year's Wrong Information Is Being Given Out at Princeton. Reviews of these books mimic those of Donleavy's earlier body of work. Critics once again reminded readers that the newer works pale in comparison to the author's hallmark, The Ginger Man. Furthermore, as Ellen Beardsley says of The Lady, Donleavy's writing contains awkward syntax, elements of "absurdity," and "squalid and lusty moments. . . [that] do not come together with any conviction." In a Publishers Weekly assessment that describes Wrong Information as "a muddle that's lewd without purpose and mean-spirited without irony," a critic refers to The Lady, Wrong Information, and The Ginger Man when declaring: "Donleavy . . . seems fixated on odd or disagreeable people whose bizarre behavior puts them on society's margins." A different Publishers Weekly review remarks that the author's characteristic "irreverent but heavy-handed satire" is present in The Lady, a "short modern-day fairy tale" in which Donleavy "retains his caustic wit and instinct for outrage." A Library Journal review is also reminiscent of past criticisms when it proclaims that The Lady has "a sophomoric plot."
A writer for the Economist summarized The Lady: "Short enough to be a long short story, it is the woebegone tale, Social Education in the suburban climes of Scarsdale, of a lonely, broken, middle-aged woman and her obsessions-poverty, death, hygiene and her own loneliness. With its fractured, semi-incoherent prose it reads like the work of a man who has wrung his best ideas out of himself, and is desperately casting around for fictional straws to cling to." Critics judgments' of Donleavy's characterizations in The Lady varied. The protagonist, maintains Susan Salter Reynolds of Los Angeles Times Book Review, is "a character of enormous force and dignity." According to the Publishers Weekly reviewer, "Donleavy paints a wryly compassionate portrait." Nina Sonenberg's New York Times Book Review assessment contends that in a "rich, ribald and touching creation. . . . Donleavy proves himself as much the master of a certain New York social set and train corridor as he is of the psyche of a fresh-mouthed 43-year-old Daughter of the Confederacy." In contrast, Yardley maintains that in "a tale that begs for further elaboration" and "attempts at lighthearted irony bog down in ham-handed sarcasm," the author "displays little real sympathy for [the protagonist and]. . . . since no emotion has been expended on [her] . . . one finds it difficult to summon any." Of Donleavy's Wrong Information Is Being Given Out at Princeton, however, Eamon Wall in The Review of Contemporary Fiction remarks that the author's "greatest achievement ... is his ability to describe, in such fulsome and elegant detail, post-1945 New York City." Paul Di Filippo, reviewing Wrong Information in the San Francisco Chronicle, also praises it, maintaining that "happily, the author's patented Amerihibernian roguish spiel-choppy yet fluid, sometimes syntactically jarring, alternately coarse and elegant, shifting whimsically from first person to third-rings as strong as ever."
Donleavy has personally adapted several of his novels as plays, including The Ginger Man. Though occasionally the theatrical version has been produced before the novel published, Donleavy tells Sim Horwitz in Back Stage: "I've never written an original play, one not based on my novels. I find it almost impossible to write a script without a massive body of material to start with." The writer of Donleavy's entry in Contemporary Dramatists finds this problematical: "His novels are usually written from the standpoint of one man, an antihero such as Sebastian Dangerfield or George Smith, but in a play the audience is necessarily aware of other characters simply because they are on the stage. If the central character talks too much," the critic continues, "the audience's sympathy may be drawn toward the reactions of other people to him. A single angle of vision, easy to maintain in a novel, is often hard to achieve in the theater, which is a multi-dimensional medium." Interestingly, the same writer feels that Fairy Tales of New York, which was staged before the novel version was published, "is much more successful." With a "changed role for the central character, together with the much greater flexibility of form," this play "allows Donleavy's great gifts for caracature, witty dialogue, and buoyant fun to be more evident."
Although Donleavy's novel The Ginger Man remains the standard by which the entirety of his work is measured, his writing has generated the full spectrum of critical response. Ken Lawless in a piece for the Antioch Review about The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, for example, writes that "no literary artist working in English today is better than J. P. Donleavy, and few merit comparison with him." On the other hand, in the New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey Wolff reacts to similar critical assessments of Donleavy's work with: "Nonsense. He is an Irish tenor who sets his blarney to short songs that are sometimes as soft as velvet or good stout, sometimes plangent, elliptical and coarse." However, Grant suggests that "at the very least, he represents the example of a writer who goes very much his own way, eschewing both the popular success of the best-sellers and the literary acclaim of the academic establishment. At best, a case can be made for a few of his novels as primary expressions within the black humorist tradition of modern literature. Certainly he is a foremost American exponent of the Kafkaesque vision of the modern world, and his better works strongly express that sense of universal absurdity at which we can only laugh."
"After all my years of struggle, it makes me realize that in my own way I have conquered America, totally silently, totally from underground and from within and that television or being interviewed doesn't matter," Donleavy relates in the Paris Review. In his Saturday Review essay, "The Author and His Image," Donleavy ponders the complexities of an author's image in its various aspects from obscurity through success, and concludes: "But you know no matter what you do the world will always finally turn its face away. Back into all its own troubled lives. . . . Forgetting what you wanted them to see. Silent with what you wanted them to say. And empty with what you wanted them to feel. Except somewhere you know there will be a voice. At least once asking. Hey what happened to that guy, did he die, you know the one, who wrote that book, can't remember his name but he was famous as hell. That was the author. And that was his image."
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J. P. Donleavy Compendium, unofficial author Web site site, http://www.jpdonleavycompendium.org/ (January 9, 2004).*