The following is from J.P. Donleavy’s cult-novel The Ginger Man, about American Sebastian Dangerfield studying at Trinity College, Dublin. This year marks sixty years since its first publication in Paris upon which it was banned for obscenity in the United States. Donleavy is 87, and lives as a "semi-reclusive gentleman farmer" in Ireland.
Today a rare sun of spring. And horse carts clanging to the quays down Tara Street and the shoeless white faced kids screaming.
O’Keefe comes in and climbs up on a stool. Wags his knapsack around on his back and looks at Sebastian Dangerfield.
“Those tubs are huge over there. First bath for two months. I’m getting more like the Irish every day. Like going on the subway in the States, you go through a turnstile.”
“Did you go first or third class, Kenneth?”
“First. I broke my ass washing my underwear and in those damn rooms in Trinity nothing will dry. In the end I sent my towel to the laundry. Back at Harvard I could nip into a tiled shower and dive into nice clean underwear.”
“What will you have to drink, Kenneth?”
“Just been to visit my broker with an electric fire.”
“Then buy me a cider. Does Marion know you’ve hocked the fire?”
“She’s away. Took Felicity with her to visit her parents. On the moors in Scotland. I think the Balscaddoon was getting her down. Scrabbling on the ceiling and groans from under the floor.”
“What’s it like out there? Does it freeze your balls?”
“Come out. Stay for the weekend. Not much in the way of food but you’re welcome to whatever I’ve got.”
“Which is nothing.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“I would. Since I’ve arrived here everything has been down and these guys at Trinity think I’m loaded with dough. They think the G.I. Bill means I crap dollars or a diarrhea of dimes. You get your check?”
“Going to see about it Monday.”
“If mine doesn’t come, I’ll croak. And you’re saddled with a wife and child. Wow. But at least you get it steady. And I’ve never got it at all. Any loose women out there on Howth?”
“I’ll keep a watch.”
“Look I’ve got to go and see my tutor and see if I can find out where they hold my Greek lectures. Nobody knows, everything is secret. No more drink for me. I’ll come out over the weekend.”
“Kenneth, I might have your first woman waiting for you.”
* * * *
It was a steep hill up to Balscaddoon. Winding close to the houses and the neighbor’s eyes having a look. Fog over the flat water. And the figure hunched up the road. On top it leveled and set in a concrete wall was a green door.
Within the doorway, smiles, wearing white golfing shoes and tan trousers suspended with bits of wire.
“By all means come in, Kenneth.”
“Some place. What holds it up?”
O’Keefe went through the house. Opening doors, drawers, closets, flushing the toilet, lifting its lid, flushing it again. Stuck his head in the hall.
“Say this thing really works. If we had something to eat we’d be able to use it. They’ve got one of those big shops down there in the town, why don’t you pop down with that English accent of yours and get some credit. As much as I like your company, Dangerfield, I’d prefer it on a full stomach.”
“I’m up to my eyes already.”
“And you don’t look so hot in those clothes.”
O’Keefe jumped on the floor of the drawing room. Pulled open the conservatory door, pinched the leaves of a dying plant and went out into the garden. Standing on the shaggy grass he gave a shrill whistle as he looked down precipitous rocks to the swells of sea many feet below. He went round the narrow back of the house, looking in the windows. In a bedroom he saw Dangerfield on his knees chopping a large blue blanket with an axe. He rushed back into the house.
“Jesus Christ, Dangerfield, what are you doing? Have you gone Asiatic?”
“But that’s a good blanket. Give it to me if you’re going to chop it up.”
“Now, Kenneth, watch me. See? Put this round the neck like this, tuck in the ragged edges and presto. I’m now wearing Trinity’s rowing blue. Always best to provide a flippant subtlety when using class power. Now we’ll see about a little credit.”
“You shrewd bastard. I must admit it looks good.”
“Make a fire in the stove. I’ll be back.”
“Get us a chicken.”
Dangerfield stepped out into a deserted Balscaddoon Road.
The counter was covered with rich sides of bacon and wicker baskets of bright eggs. Assistants, white aproned, behind the long counter. Bananas, green from the Canary Isles, blooming from the ceiling.
Dangerfield stopping in front of a gray haired assistant who leans forward eagerly.
“Good day, sir. Can I be of any help?”
Dangerfield hesitating with pursed lips.
“Good day, yes. I would like to open up an account with you.”
“Very good, sir. Will you please come this way.”
The assistant opening a large ledger across the counter. Asking Dangerfield’s name and address. “Shall I bill you monthly or quarterly, sir?”
“I think quarterly.”
“Would you like to take anything with you today, sir?”
Dangerfield caressing his teeth together, his eyes darting among the shelves.
“Do you have any Cork Gin?”
“Certainly, sir. Large or small size?”
“I think the large.”
“And anything else, sir?”
“Do you have any Haig and Haig?”
Assistant calling to the end of the shop. A small boy goes behind the scenes and comes out with a bottle. Dangerfield points to a ham.
“And how many pounds, sir?”
“I’ll take it all. And two pounds of cheese and a chicken.”
Assistant all smiles and remarks. O it’s the weather. Shocking fog. No day for them ones at sea or the others either. And clapping his hands to the little boy.
“Come here and carry the parcels for the gentleman. And a very good day to you, sir.”
Up the hill, O’Keefe waiting and sweeping the packages into his arms. In the kitchen, laying them out on the table.
“How you do it, Dangerfield, I don’t know. The first time I went looking for credit they told me to come back with a letter from a bank manager.”
“It’s the blue blood, Kenneth. Now I’ll cut off a little piece of this cheese and give it to the little boy.”
Dangerfield returns to the kitchen smiling and rubbing his hands. “What made you get all this damn booze?”
“Warm us up. I think a cold front is on the way from the Arctic.”
“What will Marion say when she gets back?”
“Not a word. These English wives are great. Know their proper place. Ought to marry one yourself.”
“All I want is my first piece of arse. Plenty of time to get snowed under with a wife and kids. Give me some of that Scotch and out of my way now while I rustle up this food. Cooking is the only work I sometimes think I’m fitted for. One summer when I was working in Newport I thought of giving up Harvard. There was this Greek chef who thought I was wonderful because I could speak aristocratic Greek but they fired me because I invited some of the boys from Harvard into the club’s bar for a drink and the manager came over and fired me on the spot. Said the staff weren’t to mix with guests.”
“Quite rightly so.”
“And now I’ve got a degree in classics and still have to cook.”
“A noble calling.” O’Keefe flipping pots and bouncing from sink to table.
“Kenneth, do you think you’re sexually frustrated and maladjusted?”
“You’ll find opportunities in this fine land.”
“Yeah, lots, for unnatural connections with farm animals. Jesus, the only time I can forget about it is when I’m hungry. When I eat I go mad. I sat down and read every book on sex in the Widener Library to see how I could get it. Did me no damn good. I must repel women and there’s no cure for that.”
“Hasn’t anyone ever been attracted?”
“Once. At Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Asked me to come up to her room to listen to some music. She started to press up against me and I ran out of the room.”
“She must have been too ugly. That’s another thing against me. I’m attracted to beautiful women. Only thing for me is to grow old and not want it anymore.”
“You’ll want it more than ever.”
“Jesus, that isn’t true, is it? If that’s what I’ve got to look forward to I may as well flip myself off the end of the back garden out there. Tell me, what’s it like to have it steady?”
“Get used to it like most things.”
“I could never get used to it.”
“But what’s this little visit of Marion’s to mama and papa? Friction? Drinking?”
“She and the baby need a little rest.”
“I think her old man must be wise to you. How did he ever screw you out of two hundred and fifty notes? It’s no wonder you never got it.”
“He just took me into his study and said sorry son, things are just a little tight at the moment.”
“Should have said dowry or no marriage. He must have dough, an admiral. Give him the stuff, like to provide for Marion the way she’s accustomed to. Could have touched him with a few of those rosy ideas of yours.”
“Too late. This was the night before the wedding. I even refused a drink for strategy. However, he waited a good five minutes after the butler left before pleading poverty.”
O’Keefe spins holding the chicken by the leg.
“See, he’s shrewd. Saved himself two hundred and fifty nicker notes. If you had been on your toes you could have told him you had Marion up the pole and with a birth imminent you needed a little nest egg. Now look at you. All you need to do now is flunk your law exams and bingo.”
“I’m all right, Kenneth. Little money and everything’s all right. Got a house, wife, daughter.”
“You mean you pay rent for a house. Stop paying rent, no house.”
“Let me pour you another drink, Kenneth. I think you need it.”
O’Keefe filling a bowl with bread crumbs. Night outside and the boom of the sea. Angelus bells. Pause that refreshes.
“This, Dangerfield, is your blood for which your family will starve and which will finally send you all to the poor house. Should have played it cozy and married strictly for cash. Come in drunk, have a quick one and whoops, another mouth to feed. You’ll be eating spaghetti as I had to as a kid till it comes out of your eyes or else you’ll have to take your English wife and English kids and screw back to America.”
The chicken, trussed, was laid reverently in the pan. O’Keefe with a smack of the lips pushed it in the oven.
“When that’s ready, Dangerfield, we’ll have chicken à la Balscaddoon. You know, this is a pretty spooky house when it gets dark. But I don’t hear anything yet except the sea.”
“Well, ghosts won’t bother me on a full stomach and certainly never if I had a full sex life. Do you know, at Harvard I finally got Constance Kelly in my power. There was a girl who strung me along for two years till I found out what a fraud American womanhood was and I squeezed her right under my thumb. But I can’t figure it out. I never could get it. She’d do anything but let me in. Holding out for wealth on Beacon Hill. I would have married her but she didn’t want to get stuck at the bottom of the social ladder with me. One of her own kind. Jesus, she’s right. But do you know what I’m going to do? When I go back to the States when I’m fat with dough, wearing my Saville Row suits, with black briar, M.G. and my man driving, I’m going to turn on my English accent full blast. Pull up to some suburban house where she’s married a mick, turned down by all the old Bostonians, and leave my man at the wheel. I’ll walk up the front path knocking the kid’s toys out of the way with my walking stick and give the door a few impatient raps. She comes out. A smudge of flour on her cheek and the reek of boiled cabbage coming from the kitchen. I look at her with shocked surprise. I recover slowly and then in my best accent, delivered with devastating resonance, I say Constance . . . you’ve turned out . . . just as I thought you would. Then I spin on my heel, give her a good look at my tailoring, knock another toy aside with my cane and roar away.”
Dangerfield swinging back in the green rocking chair with a wiggle of joy, head shaking in a hundred yesses. O’Keefe striding the red tiles of the kitchen floor, waving a fork, his one live eye glistening in his head, a mad mick for sure. Perhaps he’ll slip on one of the toys and break an arse bone.
“And Constance’s mother hated my guts. Thought I’d suck her down socially. Would open all the letters I’d write to her daughter, and I’d sit in Widener Library thinking up the dirtiest stuff I could imagine, I think the old slut loved them. Used to make me laugh thinking she’d read them and then have to burn them. Jesus, I repel women, damn it. Even this winter down in Connemara visiting the old folks, my cousin, who looked like a cow’s arse wouldn’t even come across. I’d wait for her to go out and get the milk at night and go with her. At the end of the field I’d try to nudge her into the ditch. I’d get her all breathless and saying she’d do anything if I’d take her to the States and marry her. I tried that for three nights running, standing out there in the rain up to our ankles in mud and cow flop, me trying to get her in the ditch, knock her down, but she was too strong. So I told her she was a tub of lard and I wouldn’t take her to East Jesus. Have to get them a visa before you can touch an arm.”
“Marry her, Kenneth.”
“Get tangled with that beast of burden for the rest of me days? Be all right if I could chain her to the stove to cook but to marry the Irish is to look for poverty. I’d marry Constance Kelly out of spite.”
“I suggest the matrimonial column of the Evening Mail for you. Put no encumbrance. Man of means, extensive estates in West. Prefers women of stout build, with own capital and car for travel on Continent. No others need apply.”
“Let’s eat. I want to leave my problem uncomplicated.”
“Kenneth, this is most cordial.”
The toasted bird was put on the green table. O’Keefe driving a fork into the dripping breast and ripping off the legs. Pot gives a tremble on the shelf. Little curtains with the red spots flutter. A gale outside. When you think of it, O’Keefe can cook. And this is my first chicken since the night I left New York and the waiter asked me if I wanted to keep the menu as a memory and I sat there in the blue carpeted room and said yes. And around the corner in a bar a man in a brown suit offers to buy a drink. Comes and feels my leg. Says he loves New York and could we go somewhere away from the crowd and talk, be together, nice boy, high class boy. I left him hanging from his seat, a splash of red, white and blue tie coming out of his coat and I went up to Yorktown and danced with a girl in a flower print dress who said there was no fun and nobody around. Named Jean with remarkable breasts and I was dreaming of Marion’s, my own tall thin blond with teeth fashionably bucked. On my way after the war to marry her. Ready to take the big plane across the sea. I first met her wearing a sky blue sweater and I knew they were pears. What better than ripe pears. In London in the Antelope, sitting in the back with a fine pot of gin enjoying these indubitable people. She sat only inches away, a long cigarette in her white fingers. While the bombs were landing in London. I heard her ask for cigarettes and they had none. And leaning forward in my naval uniform, handsome and strong, please, do have some of mine. O I couldn’t, really, thank you, no. But please do, I insist. It’s very good of you. Not at all. And she dropped one and I reached down and touched her ankle with my finger. My, what rich, lovely big feet.
“What’s the matter, Kenneth? You’re as white as a sheet.”
O’Keefe staring at the ceiling with a half chewed chicken leg hanging in his fist.
“Didn’t you hear that? Whatever that scrabbling in the ceiling is, it’s alive.”
“My dear Kenneth, you’re welcome to search the premises. It moves all over the house. Even wails and has a rather disconcerting way of following one from room to room.”
“Jesus, stop it. That scares me. Why don’t you look up there?”
“That noise is real.”
“Perhaps you’d like to look, Kenneth. Trap door in the hall. I’ll give you an axe and flashlight.”
“Wait till I digest my meal. I was just beginning to enjoy all this. I thought you were kidding.”
O’Keefe at one end, carrying the ladder to the hall.
With axe cocked, O’Keefe advancing slowly towards the trap door. Dangerfield encouraging him on. O’Keefe pushing up the door, peering along the beam of light. No noise. Not a sound. Bravery becoming general again.
“You look frightened to death, Dangerfield. Think you were the one up here. Probably just some loose papers blowing across the floor.”
“Suit yourself, Kenneth. Just give me a whistle when it gets you around the neck. Go in.”
O’Keefe disappeared. Dangerfield looking up into the descending dust. O’Keefe’s footfalls going towards the drawing room. A wail. A scream from O’Keefe.
“Christ, hold the ladder, I’m coming down!”
Trap door down with a slam.
“For God’s sake, what is it, Kenneth?”
“A cat. With one eye. The other a great gaping hole. What a sight. How the hell did it get up there?”
“No idea. Must have been up there all the time. Might have belonged to a Mr. Gilhooley who lived here only he fell off the cliff out there one night and was washed up three months later on the Isle of Man. Would you say, Kenneth, that maybe this house has a history of death?”
“Where are you putting me to sleep?”
“Cheer up, Kenneth. You look terrified. No need to let a little thing like a cat get you down. You can sleep wherever you like.”
“This house gives me the creeps. Let’s build a fire or something.”
“Come into the drawing room and play a little tune on the piano for me.”
They walked along the red tiled hall to the drawing room. Set on a tripod before the baywindows, a large brass telescope pointing out to sea. In the corner an ancient upright piano, its top covered with opened tins and rinds of cheese. Three fat armchairs distorted with lumps of stuffing and poking springs. Dangerfield fell back in one and O’Keefe bounded to the piano, struck a chord and began to sing.
In this sad room
In this dark gloom
We live like beasts.
* * * *
The windows rattling on the rotten sills. O’Keefe’s twisted notes. There you are, Kenneth, sitting on that stool, all the way from Cambridge, Massachusetts, freckled and fed on spaghetti. And me, from St. Louis, Missouri, because that night in the Antelope I took Marion to dinner and she paid. And a weekend after to a hotel. And I pulled down her green pajamas and she said she couldn’t and I said you can. And other weekends till the war was over. Bye bye bombs and back to America where I can only say I was tragic and lonely, feeling Britain was made for me. All I got out of old man Wilton was a free taxi to our honeymoon. We arrived and I bought a cane to walk the dales of Yorkshire. Our room was over a stream at this late summertime. And the maid was mad and put flowers in the bed and that night Marion put them in her hair, which she let down over her blue night gown. O the pears. Cigarettes and gin. Abandoned bodies until Marion lost her false front teeth behind the dresser and then she wept, wrapped in a sheet, slumped in a chair. I told her not to worry for things like that happened on honeymoons and soon we would be off for Ireland where there was bacon and butter and long evenings by the fire while I studied law and maybe even a quick love make on a woolly rug on the floor.
This Boston voice squeaking out its song. The yellow light goes out the window on the stubs of windy grass and black rocks. And down the wet steps by gorse stumps and rusty heather to the high water mark and diving pool. Where the seaweeds rise and fall at night in Balscaddoon Bay.
From THE GINGER MAN. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. Copyright © 1955, 1958, 1965 by J. P. Donleavy.