Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
The Ginger Man
Number 99 on the Modern Library’s list, The Ginger Man, is a very interesting and somewhat problematic novel by the Irish-American writer, J.P. Donleavy.
I count this novel, along with On the Road, as falling outside the norm of novel writing established by the other novels on this list. It is a startling piece of prose, the kind that demands a leap of readerly faith, both because of the style of the narrative and because of the treatment of its female characters. Read by a lover of literature, it is new and exciting in style. Read by a woman, it is objectionable and hard to take. The problem comes when the reader is both.
This is not the only novel on the list in which the female characters get treated badly, but it is realistic enough and unrepenting enough that from the vantage point of 2015, a reader might find it frustrating to see the women put up with such treatment and not walk out on their own and make their own lives. (Admittedly, Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls—a stupendous and groundbreaking novel from the mid-1960s that did not make the list— raises the same feelings, though with different effect.) What it comes down to is intention. The object of the novel is not to make a story of the struggles between the sexes for equal voice (as Country Girls does) but to tell of the adventures of a roguish, charming, exasperating young man.
Sebastian Dangerfield is the young man, a character, like his creator, with feet in both America and Ireland. This peculiar inborn duality of Irish-Americanism is one of the compelling features of this book. Sebastian and his companion live simultaneously in two cultures that are historically so closely connected as to create a unique culture. They are men of the post-World War II era, affected by it but not owning up to the effect.
Sebastian is a ne’er-do-well of the first order. He is a man with no civic responsibility. Everything he does is for his own pleasure, although that pleasure is of a damaging and nihilistic sort. The damage is overtly done to his wife and child, less obviously to himself. He is a charmer and an abject bastard, and he doesn’t care. Or does he? A telling line in his voice comes in the last pages of the novel: “I think I am weary of my terrifying heart.” It is that uncommon glimpse of self-awareness that saves Sebastian from having the book slammed shut on him by an unsympathetic reader.
This is a “picaresque” novel, which is a term I myself, reader though I am, had not heard until well into adulthood. It means a narrative in which the character moves through life from one adventure to the next, and it is used effectively to paint a scene of a time, as it allows the character to encounter a wide assortment of people and places that are not necessarily logically connected (logical in the literary sense, that is; life itself is rarely logical). It is a technique that releases the narrative from the obligation of cause, effect, and resolution.
The novel relies heavily on dialogue, and the dialogue is naturalistic and vernacular. Therein lies another compelling feature. These voices are amusing and moving. We enter into their conversations mid-stream, and they don’t let us go through their whole raucous life.
In the end, The Ginger Man is an enjoyable ride, hitting all the emotions in the range from exuberance to melancholy. Maybe we can leave the solving of social ills to other writers.
Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.