JP Donleavy: author whose debut novel The Ginger Man scandalised society and sold 45 million copies

JP Donleavy, the Irish-American novelist whose 1955 debut, The Ginger Man, was rejected by 45 publishers for its scabrous, sexually explicit content but eventually sold more than 45 million copies and came to be regarded as a modern classic, died on 11 September after a stroke at a hospital near his home in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. He was 91.

Donleavy was a New York native who moved to Ireland for university, adopted an outfit of corduroy and tweed (along with a matching brogue) and established himself as an itinerant successor to James Joyce. He wrote more than a dozen novels and story collections, many of them set in Dublin, and was sometimes described as one of the funniest – and finest – writers in the English language.

“No contemporary writer is better than JP Donleavy at his best,” The New Yorker wrote in a review of Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule, a 1964 collection with an alliterative title that became a feature in books like The Saddest Summer of Samuel S (1966), The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968), and The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (1977).

Yet Donleavy’s literary reputation rested almost entirely on his first novel. The Ginger Man was a semi-autobiographical account of red-bearded Sebastian Dangerfield, an impoverished American Second World War vet who studies at Trinity College, exposes himself on a train and strays far from his wife, Marion.

The novel’s bawdy descriptions nearly prevented it from being published. Rather than cut the salacious bits, which in Donleavy’s opinion contained the core of the book, he followed the suggestion of Irish poet and writer Brendan Behan and submitted the novel to Olympia Press in Paris.

The publishing house would later release Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. At the time, however, it was launching a series of potentially lucrative pornographic novels under the name Traveller’s Companion, and scooped up Donleavy’s book alongside such titles as White Thighs and School…

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