A contented life on the edge The UNCENSORED Donleavy

March 07, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

Chestertown -- Here in academia sits the softly corduroyed J. P. Donleavy, his white beard trimmed tightly and his nails clean as beach pebbles. Out of his breast pocket hangs a gold-colored silk handkerchief. His shoes are brown leather and comfortable as glowing peat.

A little while ago, across the ocean at the Donleavy estate 50 miles outside Dublin, a visitor hoping to catch a glimpse of the reclusive writer ignored the man splattered with Irish mud filling holes in a rain-pounded lane.

Where's the tweedy man? Where's the knickered novelist whose dirty book made him filthy rich?

"He never realized who it was," says Mr. Donleavy. "To him, I was just another Irish worker. I don't know what people think I'm supposed to look like."

Or sound like. The voice not of New York, where he was born in 1926 and grew up until he joined the Navy. Not of London, where he still mucks about on occasion. Not really of Dublin, where he attended Trinity College and made fast tracks from pub to pub, bashing jaws and --ing notes of the city's post-World War II Bacchanalia.

The voice resonating erudition and, astonishingly, tolerance. This from a man whose first novel, "The Ginger Man," was rejected by more than 30 publishers in the United States and in Britain. Whose French publisher listed the book under its pornography imprint. Whose legal battle to regain the rights to the novel lasted 25 years. Whose task now is to tour the East Coast to promote his newest work -- "The History of The Ginger Man" -- and to field questions from students who until recently didn't know Mr. Donleavy existed.

So, here sits James Patrick -- his friends call him "Mike" -- Donleavy. From an overstuffed chair in the Washington College Literary House, he reaches out for a second or third oatmeal cookie. They go well with the hot tea. Damp and cold it is outside. Could have stayed home for this weather.

Students in Professor Bob Day's creative writing class look at the man in the chair and fidget. Someone asks him why anyone would want to be a writer.

It's a question Mr. Donleavy tried to answer in "The Ginger Man," a boisterous literary breakthrough that shocked readers in the 1950s. More than 40 years, 10 more novels, five books of nonfiction, five plays and a collection of short stories later, Mr. Donleavy tries to answer it again.

Fame and fortune, what else? "If you can stop worrying too

much, it's not that bad," he says. He drops more advice like so many cookie crumbs. "All writers live on the edge of the abyss all the time." The students, the writer relax. "The principle of writing is to make your mother and father drop dead with shame."

His folks didn't drop dead with shame, he admits, although the book was denounced by churches and official censors on both (( sides of the Atlantic. Its literary qualities withstood the squeamish '50s. Never been out of print since and has sold more than 2 million copies, which does not do Mr. Donleavy too badly in the fame and fortune department.

Which has him puzzled about what he should tell these college students. Americans, he says, don't seem to be willing to take on menial labor. He's a writer. He's an artist. Has a couple of exhibitions each year in Dublin and in London. His sketches are even in his new book. But he tends to his cows and sod as well.

"I didn't know whether to represent this to anyone here, that I'm a farmer." Nobody recoils. Students holding paperback editions of "The Ginger Man" ask for his autograph.

Who knows if the students like Mr. Donleavy? If they don't, the campus poster announcing his appearance will be framed and hung upside down in the Literary House.

Renunciation is the bogeyman Mr. Donleavy misses when it's not around.

"I find that with the rejection I had for many years with 'The Ginger Man,' I can't trust acceptance," he says later in the quietude of the college guest house for visitors. He doesn't mind if a manuscript is pitched -- "bloodied" is how he put it -- from one publishing house to another.

"I have one now which I suppose could be the biggest disaster book of all time," he says, a kind of pleasure brightening his eyes.

"The subject matter is appalling," he says. "It's called 'The

Unexpurgated Code of Growing Old.' Don't let anybody stand behind you with your push chair on a hill at the bottom of which is a lake. Also, if you're in a rooming house, make sure you get lots of mail coming in to make people think you have a lot of legal defense in the outside world.

He's on a roll. "Get phony weight-lifting things that only weigh two pounds but look like 100-pound weights. These are survival tactics, because at a certain age, clearly all you are is some asset that you've accumulated. The sooner you're out of the way, that asset is there to be gotten hold of."

Rejection, his friendly nemesis, is by his side. "But alas," he says, "publishers see anything with a title like that and they simply don't want to know about it. No one wants to touch these things."

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