J. P Donleavy: Black humorist par excellence with a “ritzy accent” and “slamming talent” of Sugar Ray
A good several years ago I wrote to J.P Donleavy in a bout of frenzied, semi-maniacal admiration incited by the reading of The Ginger Man. Nothing came of it, but it felt quite cathartic to despatch a letter to a living writer I admire. Now, having just finished reading A Fairy Tale of New York, I feel like writing to Donleavy again. Or better yet, voyaging to Mullingar to visit him, Taittinger and Bournville chocolates (I hear he’s partial to both) in tow. One day, perhaps.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, to Irish-American Protestant parents, Donleavy was raised in the Bronx, attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School and, after a stint with the US Navy during World War II, applied and was accepted to Trinity College Dublin – due mainly, he later said, to a combination of good luck and the administration’s ignorance. Donleavy arrived at Trinity in 1946 and quickly became a patron of all the illustrious drinking dens, where he met Patrick Kavanagh, John Ryan and Brendan Behan. Recalling his first encounter with Behan Donleavy once said: “He had just been released from prison then. He was in the IRA and I was surrounded by his cronies. As the afternoon’s joke, the two of us were introduced to each other as writers.” Both men of temper with fists-at-the ready, the two of them were squaring off to have a fight outside the pub within five minutes. It was the beginning of a tumultuous but enduring friendship. Behan was, in fact, after breaking into Donleavy’s cottage, the first person to read the manuscript of The Ginger Man. He scribbled intermittently throughout the bulk, interpolating it with little comments such as: “Leave this in,” “Take this out”, before concluding, with great prescience, that the “book will go around the world.” And so it did, several times over.
Brendan Behan died in 1964 from alcohol and hard-living. Donleavy, who once seemed to be heading down the same torturous path, is now 85 and ensconced in an anchoretic, prudent lifestyle within a crumbling Georgian edifice in viridescent Ireland. A tall, graceful, beguiling and uncommonly handsome man, with a hoary lattice of beard, he still looks every sartorial inch the noble literary acolyte renowned for elegantly tailored three-piece suits and handmade brogues. Years ago, when asked about writing, Donleavy simply said, “I knew I had to write.” Describing his own youthful arrogance as “gross stupidity,” he added, “I had incredible nerve. What happens, I think, with a feverish desire is that the imagination will supply for that desire an impetus so that it can be carried out.” I guess he’s living proof of his own prophesy. Later, speaking of New York as a source of inspiration Donleavy proffered: “There are tiny little incidents that happen in New York, that take five seconds to happen…I’ll take that incident and make it into a real story.” One assumes that that’s exactly how A Fairy Tale of New York materialised, but its verve, and its bawdy, riotous spirit has me convinced otherwise – there must have been some thought in it, some meditation in its brilliance.
The story opens when “Cornelius Treacle Christian of the Brooklyn Treacles and the Bronx Christians” returns to the city “on a monstrous boatload of sorrow” after a decade of education abroad; with one dead wife, who kicked-it during the voyage, one suitcase and barely one penny to his name. “Full of dying” and pining for Ireland, the grey skies and woollen blankets which “smelled like sheep”, Cornelius begins to settle into his new life, a new world of soot and baby cockroaches, “great silent weeping streams of people” and city streets bustling with “blacksmiths, bakers and candlestick makers of a hundred years ago.” Penniless and in debt to the funeral home for his wife’s burial, Cornelius gets offered a job by the sprightly funeral parlour owner, Mr Clarance Vine, who seems to be convinced that Cornelius has “the culture and the elegance” required for the hallowed vocation. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet undeterred and sure of his apprentice’s aptitude, Clarance is keen to impart the wisdom he has acquired: “To love your work is happiness”; “This isn’t death. All this is life”; “sorrow demands a perfect temperature”. All this while Cornelius absentmindedly ponders how best to move his “balls to the left side” of his trouser leg, restrain an “engorged perpendicularity” while talking to the female bereaved, or grab a “tasty handful” of some unsuspecting woman’s ass.
Our protagonist is a roistering dandy, with a “ritzy accent”, living the life of a mendicant with “rotted out drawers”. He picks up stray whores, confabulates, coaxes the homeless out of pennies, seduces wives, fornicates with every skirt in sight, regards most people as “unconscionable, wretched fuckpigs”, and has a hook with the “slamming talent” of Sugar Ray. He is, to paraphrase his landlady, an interloper, a pervert, and a hapless “mortician spreading pestilence” in the town of New York – but one of a complex morality and considerable charm. His mind wanders like an inebriated wasp from the iniquitous (when he contemplates asking women, “Awfully politely. May I make use of your service entrance madam. Deliver you a catastrophic fuck. From your local supplier”) to the solemn (when he reminisces about his past: “I had a spouse. To build a life with. In the same bed through debts and worried nights. Shoulder to Shoulder. Till hers battered, caved in…Come to my country I said. To the cranberries and pumpkins and fourth of July parades. Come even to the barren shores where I used to run a mile on the hard sandy soil…now I’ve got to lie at night here between these sleepless sheets without you.”)
The narrative skips from the didactic and haughty to histrionic and ribald, and this linguistic tactic plays a vital role in the plot as the clarity of diction mingles with playful rhetoric, illustrating Cornelius’ despicable yet endearingly tragic persona. Donleavy displaces his protagonist in a foreign culture, dramatising the tawdriness and lack of soul in a modern world, as Cornelius declares: “I don’t belong in this country…This city is against me.” New York and its flagrantly flawed social ethos is portrayed with topographical realism, which airs the city’s dirty laundry with a characteristically rebarbative tone. Donleavy sneers with impeccable finesse at modern-day America, which is characterised by “big envy, big lust, big greed”, and is a place that’s “sad and bitter”, “a land of lies…vulgarity, obscenity and money. A country of sick hearts.” The character ensemble in A Fairy Tale of New York is chaotically heterogeneous and consists of personages who seem to teeter on the edge, most notably Cornelius’ love interest, the pale-limbed Park Avenue blonde by the name of Fanny Sourpuss, who is obsessed with his “marvellous twitching cock” and constantly pleads for him to “undertake her”. But Cornelius has ideas of his own. Here he is weighing up his options: “Marry and be rich. Stay free and be poor” while “She gets richer. And I get a worn cock. Till death do you part. And your prick falls off in heaven.”
A Fairy Tale of New York is a rigadoon of rascality, a libidinous comic dirge of disappointment, tragedy and the feeling of being lost in a city swallowed by urbanity. Death is an all-pervasive topic and an unusually comic one enriched with the Irish tradition of the macabre. Donleavy has a knack for satirising both the quotidian dross and the sacerdotal as the various characters impart their (hilarious) little apothegms: “God is what your desires are. They should be plenty ass and plenty money,” or “The majority of homicides in this town are acts of justice…ninety nine per cent of the time it’s what people get for being rude,” and “If you eat good, crap good, work good, nothing can kill you except long life.” Donleavy is a black humourist par excellence with an unparalleled ability to lampoon modern life to unruly result, weaving it with witty, lusty, profane, concupiscent and achingly honest discourse. His monologues and dialogues contain a battery of paratactic devices, omitted or isolated words and phrases, reinforcing the ever-shifting voice, tense and subject matter, and making A Fairy Tale of New York a wild and roaring ride through America’s mid-century landscape. And like one of Cornelius’ mischievous dalliances, it feels jolly and sad, “good and bad all at once”.