Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Ginger Man

Yesterday I finished the Ginger Man, probably the most distinctive book I've read so far this year, and probably the most difficult to review (if these little reflections can be called reviews). This was another book I'd come across via my late uncle Mick, but unlike others, one for which I had absolutely no context, in that neither title nor author were at all familiar to me (although I have since seen it in some lists of prominent books from the 20th century).

This is a striking and divisive book. The story, such as it is in what is very much an impressionist book, is essentially a year (perhaps) in the life of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, an alcoholic, womanising, entitled, 20-something law student living, for most of the book, in Dublin. For the most part, he's thoroughly dislikable. The women of the story - Marion, Chris, Miss Frost and Mary - are often fairly insipid characters, and although Sebastian does seem to genuinely love them, he treats them appallingly, leeching and stealing from them, beating them, neglecting his son, charming them into things they either don't want or shouldn't do, and moving on to other pursuits at a moment's notice. The other characters who drift in and out of Sebastian's world - O'Keefe, Percy Clocklan, Tone Malarkey, etc - share many of his reprehensible characteristics, and serve only to reinforce the reader's sense of Sebastian himself.

There is no denying, though, the really vital energy with which Donleavy tells the story. His style of writing reminds me of Joyce, in the pace and perhaps setting, or Thompson, or even Kerouac, in its stream-of-consciousness style, yet its somehow very different. The intensity and consistency of the style throughout the book's 350 pages is admirable - it never lets up, right through to the story's conclusion (inconclusive though it is) in London.

There were times when I wasn't sure whether I was liked the book or hated it, but it is certainly memorable, and at no point did any dislike diminish my eagerness to keep reading. As it moved towards its close, I genuinely didn't know whether it was gravitating towards a tragic but just come-uppance, a repentant redemption, or rescue for Sebastian's sorry soul, and to the author's credit, he steers clear of any archetypal resolution, and stays true to the impressionist style.

A book I won't quickly forget.

Next up: continuing with Hitchcock by Truffaut, and resuming my Hemingway journey with A Moveable Feast.

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