“On the corner lolly pop traffic lights tasted all day from red to green with lemon in between.” – J. P. Donleavy, A Singular Man
It was only a few weeks ago I found out J.P. Donleavy passed away last September. It’s almost as if the Universe had been protecting me from the blow and I’m still very much processing this now. A man whose books reflected back Life to me as I knew it and also dreamed it to be. And provided much comfort in dark days when it used to seem there were many. I took to buying copies of his novels whenever I’d see one to pass along to a friend and share the joy. To date I have bought Schultz twenty-five, yes 25, times. A mutual friend once told this to the Maestro and Donleavy responded, “he obviously has good taste”.
I claim Schultz, along with Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day, as my favourite novel. As I re-read the former in 2006, I felt great affinity to this American running wild in London, getting his theater production going, having arrived back in that great city myself. Affinity in many but not all ways. As Alex Sarll once pointed out to me, “I never use the term ‘anti-hero’, but (titular character) Schultz really is one…and let’s face it, he is a cock.” But it’s Schultz – and Donleavy’s – very Lifeforce that whips the book into being, a determination that will never be conquered, always returning to fight another day, weathering the depths as he scrambles for the heights. Don’t talk to me about story arc. I’ve never believed such a thing to be of any importance. All that matters is Lifeforce, the pulse and essence from which spring vitality and presence. Schultz starts off strong. On the second page we learn “…through a typist’s error, the company had been named Sperm Productions instead of Spear Productions.” And the story skyrockets from there. Ribald, yes, but heartfelt more. As Love, Lust, Money, Friendship, and The Pursuit Of One’s Dreams all battle it out through the “night glow” of London. And when in the second volume, Are You Listening Rabbi Löw, just as excellent, Schultz begins losing his grip on reality and conversing with the 16th Century Prague Rabbi, things get even more hilarious and devastating. This book contains one of my favourite and oft-quoted lines on page 399 “And Rabbi, I’ve found there’s nothing you can do to make women love you. But if you don’t do anything at all they’ll forget you.”
I discovered Mr. Donleavy back in 1996. I had loved reading fiction when I was young but had fallen out of it in my late teens. And then of course it was a girl who got me back into it. Suggesting I read Naked Lunch and Trainspotting with her. I loved the latter but the only thing I remember about the Burroughs is the bit about putting the penis under the President’s eyelid. Being swept up by Britpop at the time, and reading that Martin Amis’ London Fields inspired Damon when he was writing Blur’s Parklife, I took a chance on that one day at the bookstore. And really loved it. Wanting to get my eyes and hands on a lot more like it. On the back cover of that lovely yellow Vintage paperback edition, there was a comparison to a “Donleavy” so I sought him out. Picked up The Ginger Man, let a friend borrow it before I read it, and finally got around to reading it in the winter of 2003. Its energy just swept over me. I was so excited I began phoning anyone who would listen to shout how excellent this writing was. The Ginger Man is the one most readers know, and deservingly so. The troubles Donleavy would go to get it published, finally issued by The Olympia Press in their green-cover ‘Traveller’s Companion’ series, and the ensuing nearly-twenty-year legal battle between Donleavy and The Olympia Press, is an incredible story all its own, wonderfully recounted in Donleavy’s The History Of The Ginger Man. For, you see, the Traveller’s Companion series – which also first published Lolita and, hey, Naked Lunch – was thinly disguised pornography and Donleavy knew that his work would not be taken seriously if it came out in such a manner. And he fought like hell, eventually winding up owning The Olympia Press, sending his second wife to buy up their assets in Paris when the company eventually went bankrupt. The Ginger Man flails with Life, containing such excellent lines as “All I want Is one break Which is not My neck.”, and is universally regarded as the classic. But I will argue that almost all the rest are just as good – A Singular Man, The Onion Eaters, The Saddest Summer Of Samuel S – if not better – The Beastly Beatitudes Of Balthazar B, the Darcy Dancer trilogy, and of course Schultz and its sequel, Are You Listening Rabbi Löw. There is a third, unpublished, volume of Schultz which I have often thought about starting my own press to put out, just so I could read it.
Much preferring to purchase my literature at an actual shop than via the internet, I continued on to what I could find. A Singular Man, with its blue version of the brown Lego-like men cover of The Ginger Man, and on to The Beastly Beatitudes Of Balthazar B, with its green. I fondly recall finishing this the day before moving to London for the first time, sitting on my friend Rick’s couch completely overcome with emotion – the ending is so sad – and admiration for the man’s exquisite prose. But Donleavy can make you laugh out loud as well as bring a tear to your eye, often in the same paragraph. And although the overarching feel of Balthazar B is one of avenues seemingly opening for two yet glimpsed alone, there is much fun to be had. Such as when Balthazar’s new wife remains distant and Balthazar’s best friend Beefy suggests leaving gay porn magazines around the house to get her in the mood. Which works but sends the neighbors battering down the door as they think someone is being murdered inside.
Weeks later ensconced in the UK, I would nearly complete my collection thanks to the wonderful Chaucer Bookshop in Canterbury and the now-no-longer, and much missed, Regent Bookshop in Camden Town. And after three-and-a-half glorious months, find myself back in the States with that wonderful line from The Ginger Man ringing in my ears, “Bye bye bombs and back to America where I can only say I was tragic and lonely, feeling Britain was made for me.” A few months later, heading back to England to celebrate my 28th birthday, I would find a lovely first edition of Schultz with its orange jacket sleeve at the Avenue Victor Hugo bookshop – again R.I.P. – on Newbury Street in Boston, Massachusetts, which I would begin on the plane and would change my life forever for the better. In a later year, I found myself Londonside without a copy of Schultz and I hightailed it down to Cecil Court (a slim street of second-hand booksellers whose name I always thought would befit a fictional literature snob). The kind man behind the counter sympathized, “I understand. You’re a man who can’t live without his Donleavy.”
I did indeed later have to resort to the internet for a fine reddish pink volume of The Saddest Summer Of Samuel S. And in 2005 I’d have to do the same for Donleavy’s collected non-fiction, An Author And His Image. But that particular Samuel S I’ve seen elsewhere on only one occasion since. Samuel S contains another of my favourite passages:
“-think of one reason why I should get to know you.
-You could rest your head on my shoulder.
Samuel S wiped the perspiration off his brow with the sheet. Take six months in Spitzbergen on an ice floe conferring with a group of Bombay dentists to find an answer to that. Or twenty seconds in Vienna.”
The Maestro’s work is filled with plenty of other great lines. Such as The Romantic Life of Alphonse A’s “And the memory of her lay lightly on all the water between New York and Europe.” and “His decision to make money just in case it brought happiness. And to avoid marriage in case it brought chains.” The Mad Molecule’s “And I said hello in my heart to neglected people everywhere.” Or from his wonderful The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual Of Survival & Manners – “Upon Feeling Out Of Place: If you have any finer feelings or dignity at all, this will happen everywhere.”
But my favourites come from Leila, the second book of the Darcy Dancer series:
“After all the months you seemed so safely waiting in my mind. While I did nothing. To reach and touch you. Before any other should say. Be mine. How late it is now. To plead and pray. Please leave open all the little gates. That lead to the garden of your heart. That once I heard you say. Out of all your sins. And with all your soul. Would never close.”
And its final page, which to me is the most beautiful in all of literature.
“While I’m here with you. Dearest friend. Tread with me please, over the loamy dark ground. Upon which my cheek, which never touched yours, will rot in death. Nothing trivial did you ever say. And from anything your voice could ever speak, I would never run. Not out of this room. Not away. I would but wait. And will. For you to find me here near this thick bough of this fallen ancient beech. Alone in a lonely heart. Hush. The dark. On the shores of the lake. A star speaks. Go glad at death, sad at life. Through any years. While the sky is smoky grey with rain. And green and yellow with rainbows. And purple. Like the ribbon You wore In your hair”
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