Book Report: The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy

J. P. Donleavy’s satirical offering proffers a brand humor that looks horribly outdated in today’s light. A disappointing entry for number 99 of the Modern Library list.

The first thing you need to know about The Ginger Man is that Sebastian Dangerfield is hardly meant to be a sympathetic protagonist. The second thing you need to know is that it doesn’t really matter. The book opens with Dangerfield selling his appliances for booze, hitting his wife, and trying to smother his infant child with a pillow. It doesn’t really get better from there.

Like Tropic of Cancer, The Ginger Man spent quite some time as a banned book. And like Henry Miller’s work, it offers a writing style that is complex and artful. But unlike the former, The Ginger Man fails to delivery much by way of value for today’s reader. Child abuse, spousal abuse aren’t topics that a lot of people find fit for humor. For half the population, they represent real and manifest fears.

It’s not hard to see why the book made the list, but it’s disappointing nevertheless: the judging panel was all men save one woman; 25 years after its creation only two of the panelists are still alive. (Update: now one, as A.S. Byatt passed away shortly after I wrote this.) One was a Lost Cause sympathizer, stating, “I’m for the Confederate flag always and forever.” Another defended Roman Polanski, claiming, “I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?” It’s a shame that The Ginger Man narrowly made the list while To Kill a Mockingbird was left off.

Sadly, I think this is one case where we can judge a book by its cover, or rather the words that appear on it. Between the novel’s front and back covers and its introduction, the word “picaresque” is leveraged three times. This is an AP English Lit word. It’s a word you use when you want to come off like an asshole or to sound smarter than you are. Sebastian Dangerfield is “picaresque” or “roguish” or “a wastrel.” These are all vocab assignment words to distract from the real affair: he’s an asshole and a loser and a drunk, and the novel’s portrayal of his drinking and fucking and woman hating aren’t saved by the schadenfreude-laden turn at its climax. Simply put: violence against women is not a joke, but it is a joke that this book made the fucking list.

Posted: 06.11.2023

Built: 01.12.2023

Updated: 17.11.2023

Hash: a413181

Words: 423

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes