I'm reading J P Donleavy's first - notorious - book, "The Ginger Man". I was intrigued years ago by his sparky titles ("The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B" etc) but never got around to opening one until now.
The back cover quotes Dorothy Parker: "... brilliant.. the picaresque novel to stop them all, lusty, violent, wildly funny." That should be a warning bell: DP would look back on her own disorderly days with rue, calling herself a "smartcracker".
The book, set in Dublin in the late 1940s, is not so much funny as horrifying. The protagonist is a raging sociopath called Sebastian Dangerfield, modelled on one Gainor Crist according to Ken O Donoghue (who himself is in part the model for Dangerfield's pal Kenneth O Keefe). Dangerfield chisels evryone for money, women are groomed and exploited with satanic skill and discarded ruthlessly, and forever there is drink.
O Donoghue, who also knew Brendan Behan, reflects:
I, at that time, still liked the pubs. So I would frequent them. But to avoid
the poisonous drinking I would slowly consume a sandwich. If asked what I was
having I'd always say, "A sandwich, please." Most wouldn't buy me one but now
and then the odd one would. I never bought drinks in return for anyone. I would
offer to return the compliment by offering the buyer a sandwich in return. But,
as you may know in OZ, drinkers, especially those who are Irish or of Irish
descent, care nothing for food while they are drinking. They then progress to
the stage where they practically never eat, then into the box for
Today, like an old Puritan, I think Irish pubs are the most gloomy,
uncomfortable, smoky, highly unpleasant places ever invented for the
entertainment of man. Murderers of Irishmen I think of them
It was living on the continent that taught
me drinking and eating go together. The Irish never drink while eating, except
milk, or tea and sometimes even water. Drinking is something else; not to be
contaminated by food. They go into the pub. Throw it back like crazy; go out
with the poisonous alcohol in their blood eating away at their brain tissue,
slowing down their reflexes, get into packed cars, career down the roads with
the hope of killing themselves which many do. Or outside the pub get into a
fight over some alcohol inflamed set of ideas. I've done it all and now wonder
why I did.
Gainor Crist is dead, Paddy Kavanaugh, is dead. Brendan Behan
is dead. Myles na gCopaleen is dead. John Ryan is dead. There are others. They
committed suicide using the Irish pub as an instrument.
To me Donleavy's writing has echoes of James Joyce, but the spirit is reminiscent of Henry Miller: darkness, desperate dissolution.
Here in Britain the radio is advertising deals on canned cider with the sound of the ringpull pop and into the glass gurgle. The TV tells us where you can get litres of vodka for £15. And in Dublin, you can book a literary pub tour to follow in Flann O'Brien's footsteps.
Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies" refers to "the real aristocracy... the two or three great brewing families which rule London" (to tickle his friends Bryan and Diana Guinness); a Guinness descendant was 15th in the 2014 Irish rich list, thanks largely to a stake in the parent company Diageo.
Without drink, what would we do to celebrate? Is British culture that nihilistic?
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