I’m an avid reader of Donleavy’s novels of the sexual picaresque, though I suppose that, as a femininist, I should be ashamed of myself. A new one, Schultz, and the re-issue of The Onion Eaters (1971) and A Fairy Tale of New York (1973) provide a feast.
Schultz has all the best-selling Donleavy ingredients: snobbery, fabulous wealth, all manner of astonishing feats of sex, epic meals, an obsessed hero whose talents for turmoil are faithfully reflected in the plot’s preposterous climaxes, all narrated in Donleavy’s hip, pacey stream of consciousness style. We’ve read novels very like it before, of course, but when you’re on to a winner, why change?
Donleavy’s plots are simply vehicles for a series of episodes of mayhem and chaos which, like the wild Irishman in Schultz’s show, ‘reduce dull reality to the sublimely ridiculous in a trice’. Sometimes they are as rambling and fanciful as his titles have lately tended to be, and it is a pleasant change to encounter one which is comparatively economical. It revolves round the efforts of Schultz, a Jewish-American impresario, to break free of the relentless bad luck which has dogged his theatrical career so far, and present a hit musical on the London stage – an ambition so rash it savours of hubris. In this heroic attempt to fly free of the prison of failure, he is helped, and hindered, by two aristocratic backers, Lord Nectarine of Walham Green and his languid pal, Binky, who runs a theatrical agency improbably named Sperm Productions as a cover for their endeavours to seduce as many chorus girls as possible. Attracted by the wild disorder which Schultz, apparently without conscious effort, generates wherever he goes, and also by his avid appreciation of the luxury with which they surround themselves, they back his show and install him in their offices. Usually he can be relied upon to entertain them by slipping on life’s banana skins unpushed, but sometimes they amuse themselves by playing practical jokes on him, such as convincing him that he is suffering from the fatal and incurable Oriental Venereal Plague.
As well as providing opportunities to describe aristocratic luxury in the grand manner, complete with shooting weekends and epicurean enjoyment of fine food and wines with all the right labels , they enable Donleavy to suggest, with an affectionate glance at P. G. Wodehouse, a world of bygone values where you got change out of a ten shilling note when paying for a taxi-ride (though, of course, the driver is always told to keep it). The modern world is ruefully evoked in the description of Schultz’s rented town house, a ruinously expensive place full of fake antiques and fittings which smash easily, in Arabesque Street, and by proletarian objections to the train’s making a special stop for Lord Nectarine, who walks up the red carpet, accompanied by a delighted Schultz, to board it. Schultz, of course, is the cause of the complaints, ecstatically giving his own version of the Woonsocket hi sign, and waving to the platform party of retainers as the train pulls out. (Like his adopted compatriot Yeats, Donleavy evidently finds something mean and small-minded in socialism.) Schultz’s uninhibited snobbery and innocent expressions of vulgar delight, contrasted to his companions’ English reserve and perfect manners, provide some of the funniest moments in the book.
Nectarine and Binky are men who seem to have everything, while Schultz spends his life in manic, obsessive search, reeling from one crisis to the next, as if pursued by devils – or driven by appetites which can never be satisfied: Lord Nectarine describes him on one occasion as ‘a lion at a Christmas sale of lamb chops’. Symptomatic of his need for peace and perfection is his seemingly insatiable desire for women, whose entrails he searches exhaustively as if the truth was concealed somewhere within. Some of these scenes are poignant, because his pleasure is close to agony; often they are funny. His impossibly frequent and, of course, record-breaking erection is seen as a trick ‘which fucking human nature uses to pole-vault me out of old disasters into newer bigger ones.’
One of the biggest is his marriage, to a lady who is possibly in love with him, but certainly wants to possess him entirely and exploit him physically, financially and emotionally. She is accompanied by a behemoth of a mother with an appetite like a cement mixer for Beluga caviar. Together they reduce his house to ruins and his life to chaos. His lady-love bargains with her body, holding out for marriage – then suddenly gives in and gives him a dose of the clap. In the end their marital bed is ‘like a wasteland … like she was miles away across the tundra. When it was just 14 inches across to her skin’. The old lady he simply hates. There is a macabre scene where she tries to hit him with a table lamp and he retaliates, punches sinking into her bottomless bosoms. Clearly we are in the presence of those two nightmare figures, the Lady and the Hag, the Wife and the Mother-in-Law, who have infested the imagination of such different men as Donleavy, the Gawain poet and Donald McGill. ‘Guys exist to screw women and women exist to make them pay for it’, Schultz sums up. In this savage battle of the sexes, his erection is a heroic lance, not a broken one like Don Quixote’s. He leads with his prick, and one can only admire him since he is in constant danger of having it cut off or getting it stuck in revolving doors; not to mention the various forms of clap and pox, real and imaginary, which stalk him. He rides on, bruised, battered, and riddled with enemy microbes – but unbowed.
Behind this, however, and much more important to him, is his quest for a hit show. Even at his most ecstatic moments, he never forgets it, and is likely to rush suddenly off on obscure theatrical errands. Schultz is truly a man possessed – touched by a dangerous madness which seems to come from the gods; by comparison, women are a mere sideshow: he asks one of his mistresses to ‘tour on stage in my private life’. Not surprisingly, all his women let him down: his wife settles into a state of marital siege, ‘after maybe three months of wonderful fucking’; the aristocratic Lady Lulu seeks her kicks elsewhere; the soft domestic lady in whose arms he finds asylum, and who feeds him food fit for a hero, rejects him for his friend, a man old enough to be his father.
Baffled, he is still searching at the end, in a Prague cemetary where his rabbi ancestors are buried, poking his questions down another hole: ‘For this old pops metaphysician to read. Lying in death wide awake. Cooking up solutions in your ancient rabbi mind.’ He’s still hoping, but not counting on anything, still between the angels and the beasts, scratching his fanny and touching the moon at the same time. It is this hopefulness and the poignant sense of human possibilities in spite of everything that makes Donleavy the interesting and original writer he is, and keeps his readers, like his heroes, coming back for more. It’s Schultz’s odyssey, not yours or mine, nor, perhaps, even Donleavy’s; behind the stream of Schultz’s consciousness one is aware of another, laughing like a drain, and suffering sometimes.