The Artist at Home

J.P. Donleavy at Levington Park

Home is where writers often retreat to focus on work, not receive visitors. Here’s the author of The Ginger Man at his Irish estate. Lock your doors, Salinger.

The sign on the gate said this:


My husband balked. He balked because he had only read one third of The Ginger Man by the time we arrived at Levington Park and hadn’t fully understood that J.P. Donleavy, the creator of the great scoundrel Sebastian Dangerfield, and the owner of this sprawling estate, was obliged to hail well-meaning visitors with such bluster.

I, however, was nearly finished reading The Onion Eaters for the third or perhaps fourth time; I was fully introduced to the cast that is Donleavy’s paranoid posse, and knew there could be no other greeting at the gate of this, Ireland’s finest writer-hermit.

Besides, I reasoned with my husband, I had given notification.

A month earlier, in March 2006, when we made our reservations to stay in Dublin on Maundy Thursday and in Cashel for all of the Easter weekend, I traced the route and whooped to find it passing directly through Mullingar in County Westmeath. And then I sat down and wrote a letter to J.P. Donleavy.

In it I announced that I cherished his books inordinately. That of all the attractions of Ireland in April, I could think of none ranking higher than paying my respects on his 80th birthday. That though it was entirely not in my nature to impose myself upon strangers, I would do so nonetheless on Good Friday afternoon and that I sincerely hoped he would be at home to receive me.

I also wrote that I hoped he might send a note of formal invitation, or just directions. Or leave a pineapple at the gate like they do in Dixie.

There was no reply. There was no pineapple accompanying the wolfhound warning. But I was not entering without notification, I insisted to my appalled husband. So he wrested the rusty bolt from its trench and stood aside.


* * *

I discovered J.P. Donleavy when I was 14 years old. I discovered him with the help of my father, who perhaps longed to be as sympathetic in his bad behavior as Donleavy’s fictional wastrels beat the odds to remain.

“Your Dad gave you this book?” asked my husband, looking up from the page on which Sebastian Dangerfield punches his wretched wife in the mouth for shrieking when the toilet on the floor above her collapses, with all its effluvia, upon her dish-washing head. Later in that chapter Dangerfield will threaten to suffocate his own wailing baby using, I believe, the expression “gaping maw.”

“He did,” I answered proudly. For my father and I find heartbreaking beauty in the same unseemly places.

The door opened and Donleavy stood before me in a flannel shirt and sweatpants. He wore glasses on a bright red cord and his face displayed none of the surprise of his greeting. I recalled nights with a paperback edition, bereft as Balthazar B. without his nanny. I remembered a long afternoon in summer when I couldn’t rise from the bed, too smitten with Darcy Dancer’s broken heart, feeling certain I had spent my last life as a kitchen maid in a manse sinking resolutely into the bog. These are books full of dirty, dirty bits—shockingly obscene for their time, but not ours. Still, I embrace Donleavy’s scandalous novels for their beauty above their humor (which, bear in mind, is first-rate as well).

I sat wondering why madcap chases through the sordid catacombs of Dublin gave—and give—me such peace of mind and why the clipped hyperboles and the syncopated cadences of Donleavy’s chapter-ends strike me like ethereal fermatas.

I heard in response my father recite a florid absurdity involving buttocks and bollocks and a lady’s mud-splattered riding outfit.

I felt an urge. To speak in small sentences. The better to hold back. The flood.


* * *

The 250-year-old Levington Park has been Donleavy’s home since the 1970s. An elegant but unadorned manor on 180 acres, it is instantly recognizable as the seat of comfort and respectability that every Donleavy cad yearns for and that the author himself struggled to attain.

Donleavy wrote his first and most famous novel while still at school in Trinity, then weathered the rejections of 45 outraged publishers before agreeing to sell his Ginger Man to Olympia Press in 1955. The press published it, without the author’s consent, in its pornographic imprint. Donleavy sued. And then, when the beleaguered publisher went bankrupt, he bought Olympia Press.

It was the sort of last laugh that Donleavy heroes all inspire to—and then spoil with the final refrain of their own backsides colliding with the unforgiving ground.

Settling into his triumph, his newfound celebrity as a literary enfant terrible, and his patrician estate, Donleavy brought a wife, children, and hunting parties to Levington.

On this Good Friday 30 years later, there was nothing to suggest any inhabitant, save a small hatchback station wagon parked at the apse of the circular drive. As I approached the imposing front door, I saw another sign of life—the shutters on the first floor were closing, one by one.


* * *

I knocked and knocked again. The door opened and Donleavy stood before me in a flannel shirt and sweatpants. He wore glasses on a bright red cord and his face displayed none of the surprise of his greeting.

“How extraordinary,” is what he said and then repeated it in response to my boldly apologetic confirmation that I would trespass to bring him this box of marzipan. He ushered me in to a gloomy sitting room where I sat on an ancient floral sofa and he on a straight back chair.

“It’s simply a miracle that I heard you, you know. For I very rarely come into the front of the house and there’s no hearing the door from the back. I just happened to be in the front rooms. Don’t remember why. Extraordinary really,” he said, knowing that it wasn’t.

Donleavy’s voice is soft and unassuming, his accent more Mid-Atlantic than Commonwealth. He speaks with pre-war Bronx and post-war Trinity on his palate, not Blarney dust. Irish brogue and ribaldry are his written, not spoken tongues. Even on the page, the outbursts of Donleavy’s dialogues are somehow silent—internal shouts at a God who’s a fickle mate.

“Pee pads?” he asked when I told him about a lap dog who deigned not to leave her Greenwich Village apartment for her daily toilet. “Do you mind if I write that down?” “That’s it dear ladies. Smite him. He is a well-known disgusting pervert,” is how Donleavy writes. But he speaks with more serenity and less certainty.

At 80, Donleavy is mostly done with the outrageous behavior and bawdy poetics of his best books. At 80, he is tying up the loose ends of his scattershot youth. He is sorting, in boxes in the many upstairs bedrooms of Levington House, his collected works and correspondence.

For some time we sat in the shuttered room and talked about New York real estate and the story Donleavy is writing about an ill-fated dog in a midtown high rise. “Pee pads?” he inquired when I told him about a certain pampered lap dog who deigned not to leave her Greenwich Village apartment for her daily toilet. “Do you mind if I write that down?”

And he did, leaving the notepad atop one of many piles of newspapers, magazines, and books that anchored the room.


* * *

Donleavy says he leaves Levington Park only once a month. He has an assistant in to help with his papers, and a housekeeper whose job is to keep dust at a minimum. He has a daughter in Idaho making pots and a son in New York making money. He is well known for being a hermit, though one too civilized to run visitors off with mad dogs. Or bulls.

Because the owner before Donleavy once hosted James Joyce and because Joyce then wrote Levington into one of his novels, most of the literary pilgrims knocking at his door, says Donleavy modestly, are looking for the ghost of Joyce. Not the aged avatar of Dangerfield.

But he is likely to find himself sought out by interviewers more avid even than my own besotted self in the coming year. Because The Ginger Man, the cult classic that squeezed into the 99th slot in the Modern Library’s Top 100 list and continuously defies theatrical treatment, is to be made into a movie—and Johnny Depp is to play Sebastian Dangerfield.

“There was a young actor there,” Donleavy told me, recounting a table of drinks he shared with “Hollywood gentlemen” on a recent, but rare trip to New York. The actor had laughed uproariously at Donleavy’s tale about the dog in the high-rise. This, combined with the author’s impression that Depp is the sort of man who “could find his way out of a deep remote forest landscape with just a penknife” convinced him that Dangerfield had found his worthy player.

I wondered at Donleavy’s characterization of Depp’s strength. And also why such talents would be important for a character whose more immediate objectives tend to be escaping a narrow alley blocked on one end by angry creditors and on the other by a woman or two scorned and disgraced.

But I didn’t deny that Depp, wide-eyed, antic, and irreverent, will make a fetching Dangerfield with an auburn wash in his hair.

Before I left, Donleavy took me on a short tour of Levington Park. We started with the front drive, where he called out to my husband with the authority of a man who has summoned many a foxhound. Then he showed us the pool in the courtyard that he no longer swims in, his closet full of foxhunting boots, and the mighty iron stove in the kitchen that never goes out. He took us up the east stairway, where watercolors of comical dogs with pronounced bollocks hang on the walls, and down the west stairway, underneath which a large still seemed to be operating. “I have no idea,” he said when I asked what might be brewing there.

I departed, leaving him with the marzipan and many thanks. And also my business card, telling him I would love to hear from him if he decided to take Depp out on a weekend of pub crawls through Dublin as a coaching exercise and wanted me to come along. In a professional capacity.

Though I wonder if he knows I might be the only woman under 35 who would choose an hour with his Dangerfield over Depp’s.

Did that sound dirty?


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem