A Singular Man
by J.P. Donleavy
Atlantic-Little Brown, 402 pp., $6.00
The Maniac Responsible
by Robert Gover
Grove, 222 pp., $4.50
Visions of Gerard
by Jack Kerouac
Farrar, Straus, 152 pp., $3.95
This is a queer trio of books, damned if it’s not, two jolly fellows and would-be Fieldings down with the cultural mumps and Kerouac, well…more like Kerouac than would seem possible.
Donleavy and Gover were obviously plagued by acute cases of the Problem of the Second Novel. Our appetite for comedy has grown in harness with the publicity machinery that seems to drive a successful comic novelist, especially a very young one, almost batty with self-consciousness. No wonder in that either, when you consider the rewards and difficulties of raising a laugh.
Humor alone, that magnificent discovery of those cut short in their calling to the highest achievement, those who falling short of tragedy are yet as rich in gifts as in suffering, humor alone (perhaps the most inward and brilliant achievement of the spirit) attains to the impossible and brings every aspect of human existence within the rays of its prism.
This little nugget, picked at random from Hesse’s Steppenwolf, gives some idea of what the budding comedian is likely to run into as soon as he begins roaming the halls of high culture and discovers that while the Tragic Sense of Life can be fairly neatly packaged and sold across the counter at the universities, humor remains protean, indefinable, the rarest flower of the highest peaks, or so our culture believes. There was little enough in Donleavy’s and Gover’s first novels to suggest that either of them would develop into Twains or even Lardners, yet they can’t be blamed, I suppose, for the ambition that trips them up this time. If your first successful formula is vulnerable to parody and condescension, why not stop the dogs’ mouths with self-parody, relaunching the once irresistible formula on a sea of irresistible cultural chic? That’s about what it comes down to here.
The formula of The Ginger Man was more or less irresistible: a New York Irishman goes to dreary post-war Dublin and gleefully re-Joyces the joint. Don-leavy hit on a neat division between Dedelean sensitivity, most of which went into description, atmosphere and resistance to dullness, and a blunt Gogarty smoking-room gusto, most of which went into action and speech. Jolly sex, moral anarchism, male narcissism, cultural hooliganism; this was one kind of antidote to leftist gloom and the slicker, blander Herbert Gold kind of thing. Dublin deserved it, Ireland expected it, New York consecrated it. But there are not many Dublins left where being Rabelaisian has all that venerable tradition behind it, all that lovely grim ready-made puritanism to set it off, and Donleavy wisely refrained from trying to flush those pigeons twice.
Back, then, to New York (spiritually if not geographically) and a plunge into the acidulous solvents of the new cool higher comedy that flourishes these days under the aegis of Genet, Beckett, Ionesco et al., an atmosphere that Mailer says is best reproduced at its source by Baldwin’s Another Country (no comedy certainly), to which I would add …