Authors: J. P. Donleavy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and playwright

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Ginger Man, 1955, 1965

A Singular Man, 1963

The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, 1966

The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, 1968

The Onion Eaters, 1971

A Fairy Tale of New York, 1973

The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, 1977

Schultz, 1979

Leila: Further in the Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, 1983

De Alfonce Tennis, the Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions: Its History, Accoutrements, Conduct, Rules, and Regimen, 1984

Are You Listening, Rabbi Löw?, 1987

That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman, 1990

The Lady Who Liked to Clean Rest Rooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured About Around New York, 1995

Wrong Information Is Being Given out at Princeton, 1998

Short Fiction:

Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule, 1964


The Ginger Man, pr. 1959 (adaptation of his novel; also known as What They Did in Dublin, with The Ginger Man: A Play)

Fairy Tales of New York, pb. 1961 (adaptation of his novel A Fairy Tale of New York)

A Singular Man, pb. 1965

The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, pb. 1972 (adaptation of his novel)

The Plays of J. P. Donleavy: With a Preface by the Author, pb. 1972

The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, pr. 1981 (adaptation of his novel)


The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners, 1975

J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland: In All Her Sins and Some of Her Graces, 1986

A Singular Country, 1990

The History of the Ginger Man, 1994

An Author and His Image: The Collected Shorter Pieces, 1997


James Patrick Donleavy (DUHN-lee-vee) is best known as a satiric novelist of ribald, black comedy, although he has also written short fiction and dramatic adaptations of some of his novels. Born in Brooklyn, the son of Irish immigrants who provided him with a secure middle-class upbringing, he moved from one preparatory school to another and after graduating served in the U.S. Navy in World War II. At its conclusion, he was lured to Ireland by intrigue with his family heritage, the writings of James Joyce, and Dublin’s earthy character; he entered Trinity College in 1946 to study microbiology, but he never completed his degree. After a brief stint as an artist, Donleavy returned to the United States in the early 1950’s to pursue a writing career. He became disillusioned with McCarthyism and the crass, soulless materialism he saw around him, however, and returned to Europe as an expatriate American writer. He became an Irish citizen in 1967. Donleavy was married twice; he was divorced from his first wife, Valerie Heron, with whom he had two children. With his wife Mary Wilson Price, with whom he also had two children, he settled in County Westmeath, Ireland.{$I[AN]9810001248}{$I[A]Donleavy, J. P.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Donleavy, J. P.}{$I[geo]IRELAND;Donleavy, J. P.}{$I[tim]1926;Donleavy, J. P.}

J. P. Donleavy

(Library of Congress)

Donleavy’s first, and most successful, novel is The Ginger Man, a book that had a rather rocky publishing history. Like many of Donleavy’s works, the novel is bawdy and loosely picaresque in style and quite personal in perspective. The protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield, is reminiscent of the author, a navy veteran attending Trinity College in Dublin on the G.I. Bill. He spends most of his time, however, indulging his appetite for sex, liquor, and various barroom antics, both violent and obscene.

As an educated, amoral derelict who beats his wife, sleeps with anyone he chooses, steals, cheats, and swindles, Donleavy’s Dangerfield is a moody outlaw who challenges almost every moral and social convention imaginable. Yet with the earthiness of James Joyce and Henry Miller and the deft wit of a Restoration dramatist, Donleavy creates a darkly humorous story. Like his other works, this humorous satire of a contemporary materialistic society, dead in spirit, contains a sad undertow of Swiftian melancholy and outright despair. Donleavy’s characters take the reader on an enjoyable, offensive romp through a surrealistic, Kafkaesque landscape where loneliness and death, finally, are the only certainties which give existence its uncomfortable closure.

Employing Donleavy’s typical style of shifting point of view and fragmentary sentence structure, A Singular Man, most critics believe, is less engaging than The Ginger Man. It too reveals the author’s concern with death and loss, telling the story of George Smith, lonely, victimized, paranoid, and living a life of material success devoid of purpose.

Both A Fairy Tale of New York and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. continue the thematic concerns of death, loss, and despair. A Fairy Tale of New York paints a sadly comical picture of a self-destructive America, sexually mad and socially impotent. Its protagonist ironically reverses the American Dream by emigrating to Europe to escape the land of the free. The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. is written in the style of a melodramatic Victorian novel; it traces the destruction of Balthazar’s innocent, idealistic vision, as the young protagonist seeks love and completion in his life. Inevitably, as Donleavy always suggests, the idyllic world will give way to a realization that the nature of life is loss, frustration, and aloneness. Nevertheless, Donleavy’s power of evoking the tangible, and his obvious zest for sensual description redeem The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. for many readers. There is as well a sense of nostalgia for an Ireland that, even at the time of the book’s publication, must have begun to slip away.

Sigmund Franz Isadore Schultz, the main character in Are You Listening, Rabbi Löw?, is the wealthy producer of a lowbrow London revue. Following in the pattern of Sebastian Dangerfield of The Ginger Man, Schultz rudely forces his way through the world of the English upper class, challenging its moral and social conventions with his brash sexuality and social vulgarity. Profit is all he lives for as he rambles on in Donleavy’s usual fragmentary style, with its reliance on alliteration and obscene sexual fantasy. Occasionally Schultz pauses to pray to his dead relative, Rabbi Löw, for guidance. With That Darcy, that Dancer, that Gentleman, Donleavy completed his trilogy of novels about Darcy Dancer, a member of the landed but impecunious gentry. Unlike the greater part of Donleavy’s work, there is a modest sense of optimism traceable through these books. At the conclusion of That Darcy, that Dancer, that Gentleman, Darcy Dancer is reunited with his great love Leila, who had once been a parlor maid in his ramshackle country house. This is departure from Donleavy’s usual formula, where great loves are found only to be lost, either in marriages of necessity or through death.

Although also a writer of short fiction and drama, Donleavy is clearly most comfortable with the satiric novel. At their best, his books are dark, comic forays into an absurd world where images of humor and ugliness lead readers to an awareness of the lamentable state of contemporary life and to a questioning of their values. His works are witty and zestfully vulgar yet possess a brooding seriousness that verges on a profound sense of sadness.

Most critics agree, nevertheless, that Donleavy’s succeeding works have been paler copies of his first novel, The Ginger Man. He has been accused of overusing stylistic devices, relying on slapstick and obscenity to an inordinate degree, and of replaying once lively gags that, with repetition, lose their effectiveness.

Later in his career Donleavy turned to nonfiction and autobiographical works. In A Singular Country, The History of the Ginger Man, and J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland, he combines his gifts for description with the sense of nostalgia that had appeared in earlier books. Donleavy became a bard of an Ireland that in his works seems never to have progressed beyond the early 1950’s, the time when the writer returned permanently to Ireland.

BibliographyDonleavy, J. P. “The Art of Fiction LIII: J. P. Donleavy.” Interview by Molly McKaughan. Paris Review 16 (Fall, 1975): 122-166. In this lengthiest of interviews with Donleavy, he discusses the complex publishing history of The Ginger Man, the painful process of writing, the differences between his characters and himself, his preference for reading newspapers and magazines rather than novels, his life on his Irish farm, and his attitudes toward critics, New York, and death.Donleavy, J. P. “An Interview with J. P. Donleavy.” Interview by Kurt Jacobson. Journal of Irish Literature 8 (January, 1979): 39-48. Donleavy explains how he evolved from student of natural science to painter to writer and discusses the origins of some of the characters and events in The Ginger Man and that novel’s controversial reception.Donleavy, J. P. “Only for the Moment Am I Saying Nothing: An Interview with J. P. Donleavy.” Interview by Thomas E. Kennedy. Literary Review 40 (1997): 655-671. A wide-ranging interview at Donleavy’s mansion in Ireland, addressing issues from all periods of his literary career and personal life. Particular attention is afforded to the details of his methods of writing and the status of his manuscripts. Contains a bibliography of books by Donleavy.Lawrence, Seymour. “Adventures with J. P. Donleavy: Or, How I Lost My Job and Made My Way to Greater Glory.” Paris Review 32 (1990): 187-201. Donleavy’s first American editor reveals the inside story behind the complicated negotiations, fueled by fears of obscenity prosecution, that plagued the first two novels, The Ginger Man and A Singular Man. Lawrence eventually had to publish under his own imprint the first unexpurgated American edition of The Ginger Man, followed by eleven subsequent Donleavy books.LeClair, Thomas. “A Case of Death: The Fiction of J. P. Donleavy.” Contemporary Literature 12 (Summer, 1971): 329-344. Shows how Donleavy’s protagonists are both classical rogues in the tradition of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and modern victims resembling Franz Kafka’s Joseph K. Perhaps the best analysis of Donleavy’s obsession with death, identified as the controlling element in his fiction.Masinton, Charles G. J. P. Donleavy: The Style of His Sadness and Humor. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1975. This pamphlet-length study of Donleavy’s fiction through A Fairy Tale of New York places him in the American black humor tradition. Explains that while Donleavy’s characters become increasingly morose and withdrawn, his fiction is most notable for its humor and irony. This most complete interpretation of Donleavy includes a brief bibliography.Morse, Donald E. “American Readings of J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.” Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 26 (Fall, 1991): 128-138. Morse explores the treatment of the novel in American criticism and discusses the American reaction to the use of slang, myth, and Irish values depicted in the novel.Norstedt, Johann A. “Irishmen and Irish-Americans in the Fiction of J. P. Donleavy.” In Irish-American Fiction: Essays in Criticism, edited by Daniel J. Casey and Robert E. Rhodes. New York: AMS Press, 1979. Donleavy’s attitudes toward his native and adopted countries in The Ginger Man, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, and other works are examined with the conclusion that he has grown more hostile toward America while gradually accepting a romanticized view of Ireland. The best consideration of Donleavy’s use of Ireland. A bibliography is included.
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