Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 10
By J. C.
To recap: we seek something each week from one of London’s bountiful second-hand bookshops. The guide price is £5. We do not go in search of collectibles, but sometimes find them. . . .
Walden Books in Harmood Street, Camden, is among the pleasantest shops of its kind. Run by the genial David Tobin – last week he told an inquisitive customer he had been there for thirty-three years – it offers a mixture of the rare, the exotic and the commonplace. Paperbacks are ranged outside; there are good literary shelves by the till, a London section, history, music, philosophy and more.
During the hour or so we spent there, passers-by sought refuge from hectic Camden Market; made enquiries; bought books. We pondered the strange case of J. P. Donleavy, a neglected man of modern fiction. Donleavy is an American of Bronx origin. His first novel, The Ginger Man (1955) – no need to be put off by its quondam popularity: it really is good – is set in Dublin. He now lives in a country house near the Irish midlands town of Mullingar. A friend of ours who visited tells us there was only one book in view, though in multiple editions: The Ginger Man. “Donleavy was in great form”, he says, “eager to show off his left hook and his sit-up prowess. He talked much about The Ginger Man, but without the title, referring to it only as ‘the book’.”
He has written a further twenty books, some of which may be unfamiliar: The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms, De Alfonce Tennis, Leila. Nothing has lived up to The Book, but in the first ten years of his career Donleavy did have – to adapt the title of his second novel – a singular voice. For some reason, he became attached to alliteration: The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. We encountered another on Walden’s outdoor stacks: Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule, a collection of stories, most no more than a few pages long, many containing his characteristic verses:
When the going
Is too good
To be true
And beat it.
Perhaps that’s what Donleavy did after The Book. There are other reasons for his fugitive destiny. He became enmeshed in litigation with The Ginger Man’s original publisher, Olympia Press (which he now owns); more deadly by far, he stopped reading. “ I’m not literary in that sense of reading books”, he told our friend. There’s always a price to pay.