J.P. Donleavy, Acclaimed Author of ‘The Ginger Man,’ Dies at 91

The novel eventually won critical acclaim and public acceptance, so much so that it is now considered a contemporary classic, selling more than 45 million copies worldwide. Mr. Donleavy was compared to James Joyce and hailed as a forerunner of both the black humor movement and the London playwrights known as the Angry Young Men.

“What really makes ‘The Ginger Man’ a vital work,” Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary, wrote, “is the fact that it both reflects and comments dramatically on the absurdities of an age clinging to values in which it simply cannot believe and unable to summon up the courage to find out what its moral convictions really are.”

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Mr. Donleavy’s writing desk at his home in County Westmeath.

Credit
Kenneth O Halloran

In a strange twist, after Mr. Donleavy had been pursuing legal action against Olympia for years to regain the book’s copyright, he ended up owning the Paris company, having sent his wife to slip into an auction and buy it for a relatively small sum in 1970 after it went bankrupt.

A stage version of “The Ginger Man” opened in London in 1959, with Richard Harris as Dangerfield, and a British television movie starring Ian Hendry was broadcast in 1962. Patrick O’Neal starred in an Off Broadway production in 1963 (and opened a restaurant named for the play across from Lincoln Center that same year), but there has yet to be a feature film version.

“Everyone who has ever been in Hollywood has had a go at making a picture from the book,” Mr. Donleavy told the London newspaper The Independent in 2010.

Mike Nichols, John Huston and Robert Redford all pursued the idea. At one point in the 1990s, Mr. Donleavy’s son Philip was set to produce a film version. Johnny Depp was the most recent movie figure to announce plans to develop it.

Mr. Donleavy wrote more than a dozen novels, as well as plays and nonfiction books. If anyone doubted his taste for stylistic extravagance, the titles of some of his books — like “The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B.” (1968), the story of a man whose only happy affair was with his nanny, and “The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman” (1977) — made that point on their own.

The protagonist of “The Onion Eaters” (1971) lives in a crumbling Irish castle and is prone to sex and violence. Even Mr. Donleavy’s…

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