The Wild Ginger Man

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‘This’, said my father, handing me a battered paperback, ‘is the sort of book that people used to hide behind a newspaper when reading it on the train.’ I was 16. I took it reverently.

It was a 1967 Corgi edition of The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy: ‘Complete’ and, most promisingly, ‘Unexpurgated’. Of course I had no inkling then of the tortuous publication saga that lay behind that word ‘Unexpurgated’. Nor was I to know that the novel would come to have a profound effect on me – on the way I thought about literature and language, and about human nature in all its secret darkness. I retreated to my bedroom to devour The Ginger Man, but by the time I’d reached the first sex scene I’d forgotten that it was supposed to be a dirty book because, like so many readers before me, I had become transfixed by the outrageous charisma of its protagonist, that indelible monster Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield.

Discharged from the US Navy, Dangerfield is studying law at Trinity College, Dublin, class of 1947. He is not a good student. In and out of the city’s seediest pubs and vice dens, trading blows and banter with Ireland’s craziest drunks, he spends his time raising hell and seducing vulnerable women. ‘I’m a man for bedlam,’ he declares. His misadventures are frequently hilarious: he flees one bar brawl on an uncontrollable bicycle, starts another dressed as a kangaroo.

Revolving around him is a cast of lunatics and ne’er-do-wells, avant-garde Irish alcoholics and American ex-servicemen hungry for civilian action. Everyone is permanently broke. Denied a regular income by his rich father across the Atlantic, Dangerfield survives by sponging off women and running up credit with shopkeepers, all of whom fall for his good looks, charm and Anglicized vowels (‘I’m down to my accent,’ he observes in a bleak moment). He scurries to the pawnbroker with anything that isn’t screwed down and even one thing that is

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About the contributor

Andrew Nixon is the editor of The Dabbler, the culture blog for connoisseurs of everything –

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