Letters an insight into Donleavy's magnum opus

Letters an insight into Donleavy's magnum opus

It is now over 15 months since long-time Mullingar resident and celebrated author JP Donleavy died, and recently, an edited collection of his private correspondence – centring on the backstory behind his most famous novel, The Ginger Man – was published.

‘The Ginger Man Letters’, published by Lilliput Press – the Dublin-based publishing house owned by Westmeath man, Antony Farrell – went on sale in September, edited by Bill Dunn.

Dunn, a writer, Donleavy connoisseur and a resident of New Jersey, visited Donleavy’s home at Levington Park outside Mullingar in 2005, cataloguing the author’s extensive archive and writing up a bibliography.

The two had met in 1990, when Donleavy had embarked on a US book tour and Dunn, then a newspaper reporter, interviewed him. The two struck up a relationship, and on his visit to Levington, Dunn proposed that Donleavy publish a series of letters centring on the composition, publication and afterlife of The Ginger Man as a standalone volume – Donleavy’s ‘twenty-seventh book’, as Dunn calls it.

The letters are primarily between Donleavy, a native of New York, and his American friends Gainor Crist and Arthur Kenneth Donoghue, who, after serving in World War II, cashed in their GI Bill to pursue a university education in Trinity College, Dublin. There, Donleavy majored in microbiology, but with Crist and Donoghue – who became the inspiration for the chief characters in The Ginger Man, Sebastian Dangerfield and Kenneth O’Keefe – he quickly inserted himself into Dublin’s thriving 1950s literary circles.

There, the trio encountered the likes of Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ director George Roy Hill, and the future publisher of The Ginger Man, Maurice Girodias. Of The Ginger Man, Behan once told Donleavy: “This book of yours is going to go around the world and beat the bejesus out of the Bible.” It may not have done that, but it certainly became world famous, sold 45 million copies and featured in many top 100 lists.

It may have sold even more had the original publisher of the series, Girodias and his Olympia Press, not published it under its pornography imprint (for years, it had been banned in the United States and Ireland due to anti-obscenity laws). For that reason, The Ginger Man became the subject of years of legal wrangles between Donleavy and Girodias – some of which are detailed in this collection of letters.

‘The Ginger Man Letters’ gives a vivid account of the conception, delivery and longevity of one of Donleavy’s finest works – and a no-holds-barred insight into the life of the author himself. For book lovers fishing for a good read over Christmas, it will be of interest to those with a love of history, literature, glamour and biography.

It will also be of great interest to local readers, as Donleavy spent 45 years of his life on the shores of Lough Owel.

The collection opens several windows into his life in Levington, where celebrated Irish author James Joyce visited in the early 20th century. Dunn writes: “Donleavy, who named Joyce as an influence on his writing... relished the Joyce connection to Levington Park and joked about hanging up an historic marker somewhere at Levington, proclaiming ‘James Joyce Slept Here’.

“A month after moving into Levington Park, Donleavy wrote his friend Richard Rhys to report: ‘Levington has got a couple of corridors – one sixty feet – one maybe seventy – but it allows one to get up speed while travelling in one direction – something one has had to do once in a while.’”

With Donleavy’s gifted turn of phrase and wit evident throughout, ‘The Ginger Man Letters’ is on sale now at €25.

More from this Topic