To the socialite who remarks in public that you are "not to the manner born," only one response is dignified of a gentleman--"To hell with that shit."--assuming that you have made the proclamation with your fly fully zipped up. Or so J.P. Donleavy quips in his latest book, The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners.
With the world going to pot like it is, with even the semblance of civilized values being dragged through the mud by a lot of plebian types, Donleavy has decided that it's time for an aristocratic comeuppance. To disinfect the noxious influence of democracy and such repellant notions as equality, invariably supported by the wrong-side-of-the-tracks populace, he prescribes large doses of snobbery, social climbing and downright opportunism. Though you yourself may be an uncultured slob, you need only follow these rules to eliminate any obstacle blocking your successful rise in society.
There is nothing Donleavy enjoys more than spoofing the follies of polite society. He has had some time to observe these, having fled the hopelessly declasse shores of New York City, his birthplace, to more genteel echelons in Ireland. His first novel, The Ginger Man, instantly revealed an affection for the upper classes and their dirty linen. In creating Sebastian Dangerfield, dissolute hero and impoverished aristocrat, Donleavy unleashed one of the most charming rogues of twentieth century English literature--suave, jaunty, devilishly bad.
The Unexpurgated Code carries this spoofing to near-fetish heights--for 289 pages, you're on the verge of uncontrollable laughter. Divided into six parts, this manual provides for all possible situations and exigencies of the social rat race: "Social Climbing," "Extinctions and Mortalities," "Vilenesses Various," "In Pursuit of Comfortable Habits," "Perils and Precautions," "Mischief and Memorabilia." The atmosphere is English manor house, gently decadent. Catalogued are innumerable pointers, all that the debonaire and naughty aristocrat must do to succeed is meticulously explained. There are rules and tips concerning accent improvement, farting in public, horsemanship, ass-kissing, being a big shot, heaping abuse, shabby people, the Old School Tie, Etc.
Knowing When You Have Reached The Top Upon a chosen element day, exercise a sartorial master-stroke of impeccable taste. Don a neatly laundered and sharply pressed pair of flannel cricket trousers, white buckskin shoes, white moleskin hacking jacket with a red carnation in the lapel, silk shirt and purple tweed tie. In your summery stylish regalia, and really looking nice poise on the sixth floor room balcony of a goodish old fashioned downtown hotel. When everyone is suitably assembled to watch you jump off to break your head, commence peeing. If no one tries to rush the hell out of the way of your pissing all over them, you have reached the top.
In Donleavy's world, things must never be "ersatz" or "outre," nor people "parvenu"; chamois gloves and cummerbunds are "de rigeur." A favorite social disease is known fondly as "The Syph". All is familiar and in its place, for good or for worse. You are meant to enter his world of social fatuousness, accept his intimate chit-chat as personal conseil and assume that you possess all the sports cars, villas and yachts that are referred to. As a result, you and your mythical antagonist--i.e., the ever-present social enemy--become the protagonists. The verbal bouts in which you both engage are conducted in two dialects: "pukka", to which you, the sporting aristocrat, are sometimes entitled; and "non-pukka", or common vernacular, to which your "bootless and unhorsed" social opponent is restricted. Fake, for example, an extract from "At the Massage Parlor",
In your physical graspings, behave suavely. Do not paw her but instead enquire with a civil tongue.
"How about a feel, baby."
Or in pukka.
"Mademoiselle, may I in a prehensile manner familiarise with a choice contour of your arse."
All this irreverence suggests that Donleavy is himself a sort of Sebastian Dangerfield, and in fact The Ginger Man was written with highly autobiographical intentions. In the 25 years since its publication, however, Donleavy has changed considerably. The dandyish narrator of The Unexpurgated Code is far removed from Donleavy the young novelist.
The Ginger Man, though essentially comic in tone, possesses a real undercurrent of melancholy, a curious gaelic sentimentality, which always qualifies the humor Dangerfield's existence is stifled; all he wants is "ease and comfort and quiet," but that is denied him throughout his rakish wanderings and loveless manipulations of others. As he becomes more and more desirous of this unfettered contentment, he is increasingly desperate and pressed to make ends meet. Ultimately he begins to see the folly and waste of this pursuit, and is saved from financial desperation by the improbable intercession of a wealthy friend.
This theme of denied fulfillment--and its relation to money--is expanded in quite a different way in Donleavy's next novels, A Singular Man, The Saddest Summer of Balthazar B, and particularly The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. In Beastly Beatitudes, Donleavy proffers a hero entirely antithetical to Sebastian Dangerfield. Balthazar ("possession of treasure") is sincere, decent, loving and wealthy. Yet he is plagued by the same consuming unhappiness as Dangerfield. The tone of the whole book, in fact, is unlike that of The Ginger Man: Balthazar B is a wistful tale, and though lightened by brilliant flashes of humor, it always maintains an essentially sorrowful vision of life. Written in the traditional mode of bildungsroman, a story of youthful education, it is nevertheless not a picaresque rogue story. Rather, Balthazar B resembles in theme the modern novel of disenchantment and alienation, suffused as it is with a sense of futility, loss and thwarted love, in which comedy is a grace, though hardly saving.
It's surprising then, that The Unexpurgated Code should display such unmitigated humor. On the surface, it would seem that the old Sebastian Dangerfield had won out in Donleavy. Yet somewhere between the lines of the narrator's counsels and the social spoofing, you sense in Donleavy an inverted romanticism, a genuine attachment to the order and chivalry of the aristocracy, a sadness that living is not what he would conceive it or hope it to be. In the jacket photo, Donleavy's face is wary, truculent even, thoroughly distrustful. You suspect the jaunty mien, the gentlemanly deportment, is a carefully constructed guise. "I live and draw a flow of gold," Balthazar B thinks to himself, "from a dead father's reservoir of riches. Behind my own lonely elegance. Where no one will ever again get to know me. And speak less and less." Donleavy has donned that genteel mask in The Unexpurgated Code, and what he would say behind the facade you can only guess.