[Jack Yeats] was one of the first painters to use a palette knife to slash
on the paint, and it made his paintings so wonderfully alive. It became
an inspiration. I knew a few painters at the time and I had a girlfriend
who painted, and so that's how I suddenly got into the sport of painting.
Also, when I saw how much money Yeats was getting for his paintings, it
struck me as a very good way to
proceed in life."
- J.P. Donleavy from "Author and his image - Writer J.P. Donleavy returns to New York for a show of his artwork"
and his image - Writer J.P. Donleavy returns to New York for a show of his
by Denis Hamill
J.P. Donleavy, the great Irish-American author best known for 1955's "The Ginger Man," will have a major art exhibition opening this Thursday.
Full disclosure: Several years ago when I had a novel called "Fork in the Road" coming out, about a New Yorker falling in love with an Irish tinker, I mailed off a copy of the galleys like a message in a bottle to Donleavy. I'd never met him, but I knew that this Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised literary legend lived a reclusive life on a sprawling farm in the midlands of Ireland.
Weeks passed. And then one day, a transmission grunted out of my fax machine. It was a note from J.P. Donleavy with a marvelous blurb for my novel.
So when I received word recently that James Patrick Michael Donleavy was coming to town for an art exhibition of 107 of his fierce and funny paintings, water colors and sketches at the National Arts Club from Thursday to May 23, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to him by phone at his home in Ireland about his show, his writing, "The Ginger Man," New York, boxing and life.
Is it true that he still boxes to stay in shape at 81, starting his day by throwing 100 punches with 6-pound weights in each hand, 100 more with 2-pound weights, and 50 situps?
"Yes, I still shadow box and do my boxing exercises," he says, with an easy laugh and a soft Irish accent. "I'm always throwing punches. I can still throw six or seven punches per second. I was born on Willow St. in Brooklyn Heights, but I was raised in a little community called Woodlawn in the Bronx and I used to box with my pals in my parents' garage. Boxing kept you in top shape and made you mentally aware. Then I did some more boxing at Fordham Prep, where a fellow student named Thomas Giddle invited me down to the Downtown Athletic Club, where Arthur Donovan, the famed referee, was the instructor. It became a club within itself. There was a collection of very eccentric people, including Frank Campbell of the undertaker family. So boxing was always a big social part of my life."
Before Donleavy became a writer, he was a painter, inspired by the great Jack B. Yeats, brother of famed Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
"I'm the painter who became the writer who's been rediscovered as a painter," Donleavy has said.
When Donleavy first went to Dublin's Trinity College in 1948, on the G.I. Bill after serving in the U.S. Navy, he remembers going to an exhibit of Jack Yeats' paintings. "It was such a wonderful revelation," he says. "He was one of the first painters to use a palette knife to slash on the paint, and it made his paintings so wonderfully alive. It became an inspiration. I knew a few painters at the time and I had a girlfriend who painted, and so that's how I suddenly got into the sport of painting." He pauses to laugh. "Also, when I saw how much money Yeats was getting for his paintings, it struck me as a very good way to proceed in life."
Enrique Juncosa, director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which owns a Donleavy, described the famed writer's paintings as "wildly funny, being sometimes dirty, violent, satirical, charming or even lyrical, characteristics that have been given to his literary style."
Are there times when words fail Donleavy and painting fulfills a certain expression?
"That's something I've often thought about, but I've never been able to figure it out," Donleavy says. "I do know that painting is not a solution to some kind of mood you might have. What I did learn is if you thought painting was some kind of novelty to relax you, you discover it's not at all. You are still faced with a blank page, and you still have to have the mind to cogitate enough to put lines on the paper. So the intellectual energy required is just as bad as writing is."
Donleavy won acclaim for his early artwork, but wanted to reach a wider audience. In 1950, he published a few short stories and essays and then wrote "The Ginger Man" in Ireland and New York.
"It was turned down by 45 publishers," he says. "But Brendan Behan, who was the first person to read the manuscript, maintained that it would get published and do okay."
Actually, Behan told him it would outsell the Bible. Not quite, but 45 million copies in two dozen languages since being published in 1955 approaches biblical proportion. Modern Library included the work in its top 100 novels of the 20th century.
Does that kind of success for a first effort haunt a career that has produced 23 subsequent novels? "Well, it became a tag, an identifier," says Donleavy. "But, for example, when Dorothy Parker reviewed 'The Ginger Man,' she predicted that my next book would be something that would find equal fame. But 'The Ginger Man' spread everywhere. Still, books like 'A Singular Man' and 'Beastly Beatitudes...' and 'The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms' have been taken seriously. Same with all the others."
After 22 years of litigation to win back the rights to "The Ginger Man," which Donleavy says turned him into a bit of a recluse, Johnny Depp has expressed strong interest in playing Sebastian Dangerfield in a movie version.
"Mr. Depp is a bright, intelligent and charming man," says Donleavy. "I met him in New York and if anybody plays Dangerfield, he'd be brilliant doing it. I don't know why this is, but after meeting him, you felt here's somebody who, if he found himself absolutely lost in a mountain range somewhere, and he had a knife, he'd find his way out. He just has a quality that says - my God, that's pretty suitable for Dangerfield."
What will Donleavy do when he comes to New York, after leaving a world of isolation on his sprawling estate, where in 30 years he's rarely spoken with neighbors? "I always go for a Staten Island ferry ride," Donleavy says. "It has a big psychological effect upon one, because your whole imagination, your attitude toward this king of cities, suddenly changes once that ferry pulls out of the dock and crosses the bay. Out there in the harbor there's a lonely kind of feeling one gets as you look back at the city. And certainly, when you're over in Staten Island, your whole imagination changes again. And suddenly, you're coming back again, and there ahead of you are the spires of New York, which we all know are very dramatic. It's a big psychological thing to do. So whenever I'm in New York, that's the one thing I always do."
The one thing I'll do while J. P. Donleavy's in town is stop by his art show and thank him for giving a stranger a blurb