Archive: Colin Overall ‘Profanity, fallibility and the absurd— The Ginger Man and me’


Profanity, fallibility and the absurd—The Ginger Man and me


Speaking at the launch of the 60th Anniversary Edition of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (Lilliput Press), author Donal Ryan described it as a novel that ‘never seems to leave its readers’. Well, it has been with me for 50 years.

My own introduction to The Ginger Man was in London, 1965, when a colleague was raving about a book with a roguish American man who enjoys drinking and uses a posh quasiEnglish accent to obtain alcohol on credit. It sounded promising and I immediately bought a copy of the green-covered Corgi paperback, which was first published in the UK in 1963.

To say that I was shocked is an understatement. It was funny, rude and blasphemous—I didn’t realise people wrote books like this. It was just what a slightly rebellious sixteen-year-old who had grown up reading Biggles needed. ‘Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield’—now that’s a name to conjure with! Donleavy’s antihero is always getting into bizarre situations, such as when his toilet, along with ‘strands of wet paper and faecal matter’, crashes through the ceiling onto his wife in the kitchen below. Then there is the blackly comic incident of the exposure on the train, which is best read straight from the novel.

Many of these seemingly far-fetched incidents actually happened to Gainor Stephen Crist, Donleavy’s inspiration for Sebastian Dangerfield. A fellow Trinity College student, Donleavy described Crist as charismatic and debonair and ‘one of the greatest American drinkers ever to hit Ireland’. Crist’s studies suffered as he became embroiled in Dublin’s pub scene, to the extent that his photograph once hung behind the bar at Grogan’s pub, whether in respect for his memory or for the identification of a debtor is unclear.

Place is an important aspect of The Ginger Man for me. Dublin’s atmosphere pervades the novel and Donleavy echoes Joyce’s use of Dublin’s topography, referencing actual street names, buildings, pubs and coffee houses throughout the book. I was drawn to visit Dublin city and to follow (stumble) in Dangerfield’s footsteps by walking those streets and drinking in those pubs.

The Ginger Man spurred me on to read more of Donleavy’s writing and to start a modest collection of his first editions. Once, while browsing in Fred Hanna’s (unfortunately long gone) bookshop on Nassau Street, I spied a copy of the Olympia Press’s first edition with a printed slip that read ‘One of a handful of copies confiscated by the French police shortly after publication’. I had to have it and paid the full asking price of IR£110.

Two days before the launch of the 60th edition I was walking, mid-evening, beside the Liffey towards the Ha’penny Bridge. The sun was going down and the light was beautiful; it stopped me in my tracks. Later, whilst re-reading The Ginger Man, I came across this line: ‘If you look up the Liffey under a low sky in setting sun you are in heaven’. I believe that I was for that brief moment.

The Ginger Man is my favourite book: I like the anarchy of its proposition; the comic effect of its language of mannered elegance juxtaposed with profanity; the fallibility of its protagonist; and its revelry in the face of this absurd human predicament. But, most of all, it makes me laugh, and what more could you ask in these desperate times?

When you are next walking the streets of Dublin, look out for the rampaging ghost of Sebastian Dangerfield, and if you’re lucky he might buy you a ball of malt—on credit, of course.

First published in Books Ireland November/December 2015


Click here to buy a copy of the 60th Anniversary EditionThe Ginger Man from The Lilliput Press.




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