Friday, December 29, 2017

R.I.P. 2017

J.P. Donleavy died this year, in September at the age of 91.  His first novel is his best remembered, The Ginger Man.  It was perhaps the last of the books that rose from a scandal to a classic.  I wonder if that will happen again.

Donleavy was born in the U.S. but moved back to his ancestral Ireland.  The adventures of a classmate at Trinity College in Dubin--no doubt mixed with his own--became the basis for The Ginger Man.  It was first published in 1955, though barely.  It didn't really get wide distribution until the 60s, which is when I first read it.  A charismatic classmate of mine (also an American of Irish extraction) at Knox College was its enthusiast.  He took to scribbling his favorite line as bathroom graffiti: "Bang on, wizard."

 I loved its verbal invention and Joycean updates.  I read and owned his 9 novels throughout the 1970s plus his collection of plays, but the only volume that seems to have survived in my current collection is his still hilarious The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners.

Since then he not only wrote more novels and other books but saw his work transferred to the stage and a song or two written.  In the 1970s I was working with a fledgling film director who contacted him for movie rights to one of his novels.  Donleavy did his own agent work so David talked to him, but he wasn't interested in having his fiction filmed, and I believe he stuck to that position for the rest of his life.  If he'd given us the rights in this case though, I would have had first crack at the screenplay.

 He also lived to reap awards, including the Irish version of a lifetime achievement award in 2015.  He accepted by reading an excerpt from his The Unexpurgated Code on the proper way to accept an award, which included how to hint that perhaps it could have be awarded earlier.  It's both a funny and a surreal wish-fulfillment moment, as seen on this video, which also includes biographical information and a few excellent tributes.

  Robert Pirsig also died in 2017 at the age of 81.  He developed his personal philosophy in two books, the first of which became very popular in the mid-1970s: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In that book (if I recall correctly) he wrote that there are basically two kinds of people: the person who notices a dripping faucet and thinks it should be fixed but let's it drip, and the person who immediately fixes it.  There was no question which one I was, but I enjoyed the book anyway.

The style grabbed me and I learned from his point of view, even if motorcycle maintenance would never interest me.  (I'm also reminded that the paperback came in different colors--the first time that gimmick was used, to my recollection.) (Update: Maybe the second.  I think Future Shock was probably the first, a few years earlier.)

In 1968, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevthushenko--already the most famous Russian poet in the West--was a guest at the home of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then running for President.  The two quoted poetry at each other and attempted to toast in the Russian manner by drinking off a glass of champagne and throwing the glasses to break in the fireplace.  But the glasses didn't break--they were plastic.  Both took this as a bad omen.  Within months, Robert Kennedy was dead.  Yevthushenko lived another 49 years, until he died in 2017.

 I've shared thoughts on several other writers who died in 2017: poet John Ashbery, playwright Sam Shepard, columnist Jimmy Breslin, poet Derek Walcott as well as New York Review of Books founding editor Robert Silvers. Other writers who died in 2017 include Nancy Willard, Lillian Ross, Joanne Kyger, Richard Wilbur, John Berger, playwrights Albert Innaurato and David Storey, Dore Ashton, William Gass, Yu Guangzhong, Bette Howland, Nancy Friday, Eric Newman, Nat Hentoff, Anne Wiazemsky, Nora Johnson, Susan Vreeland, Kenneth Silverman, Thomas Fleming, Michael Bond, Sue Grafton, Hugh Thomas, Jean Fritz, Denis Johnson, Jean Stein, Robert James Walker, Paula Fox, Tzetan Todorov and Bharti Mukherjee.

 May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

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