Good writers keep you hooked. does it with small surprises in each chapter; does it through engaging characters and a trustworthy tone. But what happens when chapters threaten to dismay, when characters are unlovable? When little is sacred and even less is safe? Then you have something like The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy.
Playing with unlikable narrators is a tricky, tricky business. I cannot stress this trickiness enough. The author is no mere artist combining pretty colors: he or she is a chemist, handling noxious, poisonous, corrosive or explosive chemicals. The challenge is: how do you retain the reader’s attention when your character, the vehicle and receptacle for their mind, is a lout? A jerk? An incurable, chronic scoundrel? Oooh, brave author, tread carefully the path of the antihero protagonist, for the modern reader won’t stand for it for long. Burgess, Thompson and Ellis pulled it off in 1962, 1971, and 1991. But these days? Simply doesn’t happen – at least, not with the same bravado as J.P. Donleavy and his fearfully mercurial main character, Sebastian Dangerfield.
Sure, recent writers have plumbed the murky waters of antiheroes: Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut, Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin. But their leading men are tempered, the former by disjointed postmodernism, the latter by a constant aura of repentance. You will find no such dilution in the heart of Dangerfield, whose lusts are unappended by apology and whose rages are raw and clear. So how do you keep a reader coming back, mess after mess?
One solution: you make your protagonist the entire book. Your novel will undoubtedly alienate and repulse, but some readers will be drawn into the abusive appeal of its desperate world. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and A Clockwork Orange both do this – their premises and attitudes are similar to The Ginger Man’s; hell, Thompson was one of Donleavy’s biggest fans. But while the narrative voices are equally raucous and philosophical, Thompson’s (hard to believe) is milder by comparison. Fear and Loathing is a world populated by cartoon characters: they squeal and cry, all in goofiness; they bruise but don’t bleed. The Ginger Man takes the risky path of humanizing its secondary characters, especially Sebastian’s wife Marion. Burgess, though no gentler, rarely torments the same character twice. Alex is cruel, but his violence is episodic, whereas the Ginger Man is defined by repeated visitations: he burns no bridges, but rather strains them over time.
It’s even rougher than Naked Lunch – which does sex, drugs and mind-blowing insanity better than anyone, but whose cast is expendable, so nothing is at stake. Burroughs tweaks, teases, and brutally murders one character, then leaps to the next without even starting a new paragraph. Donleavy, meanwhile, returns to the same damaged people, shackled to their own lives, blindly seeking shreds of happiness.
Surely someone will think of Chuck Palahniuk, but O hypothetical arguer, I’ll stop you right there. Chuck maintains that his novels are works of love, not of nihilism, and guess what? He’s right! Palahniuk’s characters begin in painful isolation and ultimately reach places of love, or at least peace, through human connection. No such joys await readers of Donleavy – Dublin is all muck, largely because Sebastian’s mind is all muck. But it’s a muck that’s strangely compelling, grasping our attention with its brazen voice despite a flood of flaws.
Perhaps the scenes with Marion are scandalous because she clashes with Sebastian’s personality. His low moments with others are well within his character: shrewd seduction, abusive insincerity. The very idea of Dangerfield being married, however, seems farcical. So it’s no surprise, really. It’s just a regrettable, uncomfortable, volatile shame.
Truly, the writing is magnificent, the voice is bolder than an armed and armored warrior, the emotions are intense, vivid, and honest. But the story! The man! Sebastian Dangerfield is a schizophrenic enigma.
Yet in the end, he prevails over the reader. All those painful chapters with Marion, the leeching upon Kenneth, the hypnotizing of Mary and Miss Snow, eventually they’re all forgotten. This is achieved, of course, by washing them out with fresher, newer chapters of desperation and depravity. By the time Sebastian meets up with his old friends in the last act, he’s back in our good graces – we cheer him on, revel with him, exult in his lewdness. All while reading it, I wondered whether I’d find the heart to keep turning pages – and it turns out I did. Dangerfield came through – he glued me to the book, kept my heart in the running, and he paid off with romp, mad rhetoric, and wonderfully obscene moments. For these delights, and for the journey of reaching them, I can forgive him – God’s mercy on the wild Ginger Man.