Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Ginger Man

I cannot say that I went into reading this book with an open mind. I was expecting not to like it. That expectation was largely based on Doug Shaw's review. And guess what - once again he was right.

Doug sums up the plot of The Ginger Man so succinctly, I will just let him tell it to you:

Okay, okay, quiet down now, I got a joke for you. Stop me if you've heard this one: ...[Sebastian Dangerfield] walks into a bar, right? Gets blind drunk, smashes up some things, goes home, and pawns his woman's stuff to get more money to buy booze. Wait, it gets better. She gets mad, he smacks her, and she leaves eventually. He pawns the rest of her stuff, gets drunk, and finds another woman who has sex with him and falls in love with him...

Wait, it gets better... after this new woman falls in love with him, this guy walks into a bar. Gets blind drunk, smashes up some things, goes home, and pawns this new woman's stuff to get more money to buy booze. She gets mad, he smacks her, and she leaves eventually...

That plot synopsis I just gave you is the entire story of The Ginger Man. That one theme, over and over. And over.

The Nation says that this novel is "a comic masterpiece." The New Yorker called it "a triumph of comic writing." Let me give you some quotes here, and you tell me if you think this is comedic:

[Sebastian] took the child's pillow from under its head and pressed it hard on the screaming mouth.

"I'll kill it, God damn it, I'll kill it, if it doesn't shut up."


[Sebastian's wife]: "That we've been starving. That the baby has rickets. And because you're drinking every penny we get. And this house too and that you slapped and punched me when I was pregnant, threw me out of bed and pushed me down the stairs. That we're in debt, owe hundreds of pounds, the whole loathsome truth."

...He slowly reached out and took the shade off the lamp. He placed it on his little table.

"Are you going to shut up?"


He took the lamp by the neck and smashed it to pieces on the wall.

"Now shut up."


[Sebastian:] "Well god damn it, another word out of you and I'll bat you in the bloody face..."...Sebastian's arm whistled through the air. The flat of his palm cracked against the side of her face and Mary sat stunned. He slapped her again. "I'm going to kick the living shit out of you. Do you hear me?"

That's hillarious, isn't it? Jay McInerney - whose book Big City, Bright Lights is on my TBR pile, calls Dangerfield thoroughly charming. Yeah - Dangerfield seems like the type of person you'd really enjoy knowing, doesn't it? I'm not sure on what planet someone would find Dangerfield charming, but it isn't on the planet I live on (or would want to live on).

I don't know that I've run across another literary character that I so thoroughly detested. At first I debated who I disliked more - Sebastian Dangerfield or Rabbit Angstrom. But Dangerfield wins hands down. At least Rabbit, Run wasn't supposed to be funny.

I'll be frank here, as this is pretty much all that I have to say about this novel (which is a waste of paper, if you asked me). Sebastian Dangerfield is an Asshole - with a capital A. A story about an abusive guy who takes all his money (and his wife's money, and his girlfriend's money, and his friend's money, etc.) to get drunk and schmooze women, while his wife and infant daughter virtually starve in a house that is literally falling down is not funny. In fact, I find it incredibly disturbing that anyone would think this is funny, or that such a character is "charming." And if you are someone who thinks this character is charming, or sympathetic, or funny, I'll venture to guess that you're probably an Asshole - with a capital A - too. So there.

Please don't construe this as a softening of any anti-Henry James-ness, but I think that I would rather reread The Ambassadors than have to encounter Sebastian Dangerfield ever again. The only use for my copy of this novel is to give it to Brendan to fart on.


Jambo! World Music 4 Children~ said...

I think it's brilliant, satirical shocking and yes, redundant in some ways. Is a likable character criterion for good writing,though,and if the character evokes such strong feeling...perhaps the author did his job.
Just a thought...

Kristin said...

A likeable character is not a criterion for good writing. Perhaps that should say a good book instead of good writing, because an author can be a great “writer” as in wordsmith, but be terrible at character development, and vice versa. But a likeable character is not a criterion for a good book either.

I think that The Ginger Man contrasts very well with Rabbit, Run. Rabbit Angstrom is an asshole as well. He is completely despicable, and in many the same ways as Sebastian is despicable. I could not tell you how Updike manages it, but though I hated Rabbit, I still wanted to know what happened to him. So much so, in fact, that I have purchased other volumes in the Rabbit series to read – hopefully someday soon. But Sebastian – I couldn’t wait for my time with him to end. The thought of having to read more books about Dangerfield turns me off so much that if the only book left on the planet was about him, I would simply give up reading.

If someone said – or if this book was advertised as – “Donleavy sets out to create the most despicable character possible” I would say he did his job. But that’s not the case – this novel was supposed to be funny. Now, there are some instances in which an unlikable character can be really funny – Sasha Baron Cohen is really good at doing that (Bruno comes to mind). But I did not find one example in this entire book where I thought, ok – that’s funny, and I would admit it if I had. I am completely baffled as to why this is supposed to be humorous. In order to be a bastard and still be funny, there has to be something endearing, something that makes you almost excuse the bastard-ness. But I don’t know what that endearing quality might be in Dangerfield.

May I ask what you find “brilliant” about it?

Jambo! World Music 4 Children~ said...

By brilliant, I found the book to be heartbreakingly funny and vulgar, unapologetic,ribald courageous,clever,graphic, and paradoxically yet lyrical,understated and poetic. It also blurs the border of the absurd, and the surreal, and simultaneously is a strong language driven novel and beautiful executed literary fiction. The experimental form is unusual and to weave all of that together skillfully in a cogent compelling narrative amid such complexities in content, politic,poetry,human,family dynamic,sexuality,gender, et al suggests a level of difficulty of the extroardinary.

>She danced on the hood of her crimson Caddilac and watching her I thought God must be female. She leaped into my arms and knocked me to the ground and screamed into my mouth. Heads pressed in the hot Indiana soil and pinned me in a cross.A crow cawed into the white sun.<

Page 50...
Yes. More than can I articulate.
TGM,is a brilliant work. imho :)

Kristin said...

Now, there are novels that I don't particularly like, but understand and accept that they are important, or good, or something, and that I can understand why someone else - just not me - would like them. And then there are books that I just don't understand why anyone likes. The Ginger Man is one of the latter. You pointed out a number of items in your comment so I'll take them individually.

Vulgar/Ribald/Graphic - yes, to some extent. Honestly not as much so as I expected it to be. But I can't grant a novel any points just for being vulgar.

Unapologetic - certianly

Courageous - I don't quite see how...there were others writing equally or more unapologetically vulgar novels at the time and before. Yes it was banned, but that really means nothing.

Clever - the way it was put together could be classified as "clever" (Dangerfield's disjointed thoughts).

Lyrical/poetic - To me, this fell far from the lyrical/poetic. Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Durrell's Justine, Italo Calvino...those are lyrical.

Understated - maybe...certainly not overstated.

Funny - I still don't get this. Why is the book overall funny? What is Dangerfield's endearing quality that is necessary to accept his bastardliness?

"Experimental form is unusual." - yes. And in what I would call a "better novel" I would have definately really enjoyed it. But this book was so overshadowed by Dangerfield as a character that not even the writing could have saved it for me.

I would not go so far as to say it suggests a level of difficulty of the extraordinary.

Reading over your comments, what you just described sounds more like Joyce's Ulysses instead of The Ginger Man.

I just don't get it.

Jambo! World Music 4 Children~ said...

Hey Kristin:
I think there's a misunderstanding. I only suggested initially,perhaps a strong reaction might mean more,than dismissing the work. It didn't... that's fine! Just to remind you... you had asked me what ..I thought.. was brilliant about it and you put brilliant in quotes which was kind of questionable in terms of a respectful dialogue,even where people disagree...but I answered honestly of what I love about the book and the writer. It was to share another view but certainly not as a means to be pulled into a protracted debate defending a book you don't like. I shared what I loved about it because you asked ..not to convince you or
to change your mind. I did not read all your attempts to dissect point by point my response,because it's meaningless and confusing. I don't share your views of the book or the writer or for that matter of good/bad writing in general.Your criterion and values are very very different than mine and so it makes little sense to debate The Ginger Man.
I'm unsubscribing to close this discussion! I would really prefer not to be emailed any more as this is not what I anticipated with my inital comment. Take care & good reading to you.

Kristin said...

First of all, I’ve never e-mailed you. If you are notified by e-mail that I have posted a comment here, then it’s your choice to clink on the link. If you come to my blog, and post a comment, I have the right to respond to that comment. Your initial question of perhaps my strong reaction to Dangerfield meant that Donleavy really did do something special or whatever with this novel was a great question, and I replied as to why I didn’t think that was the case.

As with anything that I read, I want to know why others like it or don’t like it. This is especially true of novels that are considered important in some manner, or on some best-of list, that I really don’t like. I asked what you thought was brilliant, because I really wanted to know. If you thought I was being disrespectful, you need not have commented further. I know my opinion of the book isn’t going to change, but I was looking to figure out why you liked it. It’s supposedly funny – what was funny? Etc. So you gave me a list of characteristics about the novel that you liked. Ok – how do I feel that those points apply or do not apply to my own reaction? I conceded a number of your points, including clever. I got that – yes, check. Some of your characteristics I disagreed with – lyrical, courageous, etc. My response was clearly my own reaction – “I don’t understand/I disagree, etc.” Not – “you’re wrong.” Because you’re right: everyone does have their own criteria for what makes a good book. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that our criteria differ, but how we interpret what that means. What you consider lyrical or poetic is vastly different from mine, obviously, but we would both say that a good book may/should be poetic. If you chose not to read my “dissection” of your points, that’s your business, but I think that you therefore missed what I was doing. You tell me, “I liked this book because it possessed quality x,y,z.” Ok, but while I agree that said book possessed quality x, I didn’t think that it possessed y & z, and asked you to elaborate further. If you choose not to bother with that – it’s your business.

I find Dangerfield such a hateful character that he overshadowed any enjoyment I might have had of the writing itself. I find it incredibly disturbing that anyone would think this novel was funny. You put yourself out there, I asked you your opinion, you gave some reasons, I asked you to elaborate, you chose not to.

I write this blog for myself, and if people chose to read it, that's great. If people agree with me, that's great. If people disagree with me, that's fine too, but if you disagree and chose to comment, expect me to ask you questions until I understand your opinion and, more importantly, why you have it.

SocrMom78 said...

I am so glad that someone else agrees with me that the Ginger Man is just not literature at its best. Or even at its most mediocre. I read Doug Shaw's review of The Ginger Man and cracked up laughing so I am glad you included that.


Kristin said...

Thanks for the comment. After the previous back-and-forth about this book, it's great to hea that someone else didn't like it. Doug Shaw's reviews are always great, and it was his website that gave me the idea to do this blog.

Thanks for posting the link to your blog. Looks like we're on the same journey...I'll have to check it out more in depth later this week. Love your "dirt bag" awards. What a great idea. I'm just at the point in Old Wives Tales where we realize what a dirt bag Gerald Scales is, but it will be hard for a character to top Sebastian Dangerfield!

SocrMom78 said...

Gerald Scales is a GIANT Dirtbag. I may have to nominate him for the Dirtbag of Dirtbags award. :) One of the things that bugs me so much about The Ginger Man is how everyone says he's the "scoundrel's scoundrel", like that makes him any more likeable, and the fact that he can disgust people is still an emotion that Donleavy is able to elicit from people. I got very tired of watching the guy dig himself into a hole, personally! I agree with you that it's a giant waste of paper. :)

Devon said...

Hi Kristin,

Just wanted to say, I say I was really turned off by the Ginger Man too.

While I initially found Donleavy's writing style intriguing (the immediate language in objective realm, while using more structured language for Dangerfield's internal thoughts and conversations), I was quickly turned off by the rambling plot.

Sure, perhaps fans might say the rambling plot was the point; that the novel was picaresque, but the whole thing felt shallow to me. I respect that for Donleavy this book was a stylistic and structural experiment. But the heart and soul of the novel were too demented to leave me feeling moved.

I am writing a blog, as well, chronicling my journey through the Modern Library List.

If you are interested, you can check it out here:

Kristin said...

Thanks to both of you, Pam and Devon, for leaving links to your blogs.

>Devon< I can stand rambling plot. After all, I'm a Kerouac fan. The writing here is definately unique, and I think as I said previously, would have added to a novel if Dangerfield hadn't been such a revolting character that overshadowed anything worthwhile that Donleavy could have done here. "But the heart and soul of the novel were too demented to leave me feeling moved." I COMPLETELY AGREE.

>Pam< Scales = The Dirtbag of Dirtbags? Even compared to Dangerfield? In Old Wives Tales I'm just at the point where Chirac proclaims his love for Sophia. Does Gerald come back?

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