The Ginger Man led a San Diego artist down the road to self-destruction

Was it worth giving up everything to cop a literary pose?

Illustration of the author and his brother
  • Illustration of the author and his brother
  • Tamir Shefer

I was helping a friend move, when I grabbed a large cardboard box.

“Don’t bother loading that one,” he said. “It’s full of old books I want to get rid of. You can take any of them that you want.”

“Cool,” I said, checking out the contents. It was full of paperbacks, mostly science fiction novels of indefinite vintage. Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, books acquired over a period of decades. Olaf Stapleton’s Odd John, C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, old cult books from some long-forgotten college lit class.

“Jesus, Rog, you’re shucking the books of your youth. Don’t you care about your past?”

“Dead wood,” Roger said, “The detritus of bygone times. I’m fixing my eyes on the future. Starting anew.”

“What else you got here?” I mused. “Nabokov, Celine, wow, heavyweights. Look at this! The Ginger Man, by J. P. Donleavy.”

“Take it,” said Roger. “Take all of ’em if you want.”

“This was my brother’s favorite book,” I said, suddenly remembering. Its pages were crumbly, as befitted a cheap paperback over 30 years old. Its spine was creased and it opened automatically to one of the dirty parts, soiled with old thumb prints. But the cover...

Oh, the cover was just as I remembered, splashes of greens and oranges and reds, like a painting by Pollock, with a hot woman beckoning with her arms, and the Ginger Man himself, holding a shot of Irish Whiskey, and squinting biliously at the reader. This might have been the very book that my brother had. He was 17, a Junior at Grossmont High School back in ’61, and had already acquired a “rep” as a campus hotshot. He was a gifted artist, and every year he produced a positive eruption of drawings and paintings, encouraged by indulgent art teachers who thought that they had their hands on a genuine prodigy. He was encouraged to take over the campus art room. When the class project was to produce an art show, half of the works were by my brother Terry. They built a large, freestanding abstract sculpture out of plywood and two-by-fours, in the style of a Henry Moore, and Terry put on the finishing touches with his paints and brushes.

His art teacher entered several pieces in a city-wide competition and got them displayed in the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, and for a while it looked like there were no worlds my brother could not conquer. He might not have been a genius, but he sure acted the part. He seemed to know everything, mostly about art, but also about much else. He gave me an analysis of Marxism when I, a sensitive twelve-year-old, asked his opinions about the scary things I was hearing about Commies on TV.

Terry devoured books at a prodigious rate, effortlessly aced all his tests in all his classes, and was planning to enroll in Berkeley after graduation. If he seemed a little full of himself it was understandable, given the fact that he was egged on by every adult to further displays of genius.

And then he got his hands on The Ginger Man and experienced a liberation, of sorts. Why was a mystery, but after., he read it the first time, he basically stopped doing anything else. He cruised through his senior year, mostly on momentum, and graduated with honors, but not — quite — the valedictorian, much to my mother’s annoyance. Then he disappeared. After a month and a half, he was found hanging out with some new friends in a beatnik pad near San Diego State. When my Dad retrieved him out of there, he was given a severe talking to, about how he was losing his focus.

“Remember, you’re going to go to college this fall, and you gotta get ready to enter the art institute. And what kind of crap were you painting over there anyway? A fuckin’ two-year-old can paint better than that!”

“It is avant-garde!” said Terry, sullenly. “I don’t expect you to understand it.”

My mom thought it had something to do with that book that Terry kept with him, rereading constantly. She confiscated Terry’s copy of The Ginger Man and read it, with growing fury at each chapter. First was the prose itself. Mom’s taste lay to Wordsworth and Henry James, and the Joycean-flavored wordplay grated on her nerves. That disconcerting beginning of paragraphs in the present tense, then dissolving into stream of consciousness, and the low-class, drunken adventures that went on and on without letup, and nothing uplifting about any of it. This book was a scandal! But banning it from the house was closing the barn door too late. Her brilliant pride and joy was turning belligerent and argumentative. He started smoking like a chimney — Gaulloises, for God’s sake — and that was definitely beaujolais on his breath last night.

Terry then moved to Berkeley but refused to go to any classes. Instead he dropped out of sight and lived the low-life in and about the Bay Area for the next several years. He spurned our parents but wrote letters to me, encouraging me to come up to join him in the city and live life like nobody’s business. In all that time, no matter how much I idolized him, I never read The Ginger Man until recently. Could it really explain nearly 30 years worth of a wasted life? In Sebastian Dangerfield, I became acquainted with the person Terry most wanted to be. Amiable, fun loving, a charmer. A cad with the women. And lucky — in a head-in-the-clouds kind of way. The worse his situation became, the more exalted his euphoria. Sebastian Danger-field represented total freedom from any social norm. A self-contained modern barbarian, all Id, and totally ruthless.

Over the years, Terry would show up periodically — shaking from excesses of drink and speed and junk — to sponge off his aging parents. My mother wrote him off, for the most part, as an immature delinquent and hoped he’d grow up. My father surreptitiously slipped him money and even cashed in an insurance policy to give to him, knowing full well that Terry was developing an alarming drug problem. Terry responded by drinking himself into a full case of delirium tremens, the first of several bouts of alcoholic insult to the brain. He was found half dead in a culvert and had to have his stomach pumped at the hospital. I remember going on drinking binges with him and being introduced to amphetamines, marijuana, even blue morphine.

Sebastian Dangerfield could talk his way out of any predicament. Generally, Terry could too. God, he was eloquent. And dapper. He started going about in a tweedy sport coat and snapped brim hat and worked hard at seducing the ladies. Sebastian ran up huge debts with all his friends, but was forgiven all in redemptive beatification. Terry took pride in the fact that he had burned everybody he ever met, that it was fun being a wastrel, and if anybody doesn’t like it, fuck them. Somehow, what was funny and risque on the printed page lost all charm in reality. He got married and fathered a child he abandoned, shuffling them off on her parents for years. Everybody tried to rehabilitate him. He agreed to go to AA meetings when he got so sick he pissed black blood, coming perilously close to uremic poisoning. Our sister-in-law Paddy, erstwhile partner-in-crime, found God and got Terry to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. For ten years he stayed sober and carved out a new life in Portland. My dad died, believing his son was saved. He even joined with a religious outreach program in Portland and worked with alcoholics in skid row bars.

Eventually, my Mom took sick, and facing her own mortality, paid tickets to bring Terry back home for one last reconciliation.

He seemed cured of whatever it was that bedeviled him. He cared for Mom, almost courted her, and got her to front him sizable amounts of money even while she was recovering from chemotherapy treatments for abdominal cancer. When she finally died, Terry was back in Portland, penniless and eager for his share of the estate. For a full year, I got calls from Portland, asking about the progress of settling her will. Eventually, nervous about missing out on his inheritance, he showed up at the bus terminal unannounced, with a new fiancée, an ambitious gold-digger named Michelle, who made sure that nobody was going to make off with the family jewels without her knowledge.

He was also drinking again. On the tenth anniversary of his accepting the AA twelve-point plan, he decided to see what a little drink would feel like. In three short months, he went from sobriety to the depths of alcoholic stupor, shitting in his bed and vomiting over himself. I eventually forced them to leave, with the advice that he seek help elsewhere. There was nothing left for him in San Diego.

Back in Portland, he kept making increasingly frantic telephone calls, begging for his share of the family estate. When the will was closed, I called him to be sure he received his inheritance check, a hefty sum, more than he had ever had at one time in his life.

“Yeeaahh mann,” he said, long and drawn out, in a telltale junkie voice I recognized from many debauches in the past, “everything’s copacetic, mann... Eva things coool...” I knew that his drug of choice was always junk of some sort or other. Any kind of opiates. That was the last I heard of him. For all I know, my brother Terry could be dead, killed by all the junk his inheritance could buy.

But if you aren’t dead, my brother, I am moved to ask you a simple question. Was it worth it? Was it worth giving up everything to cop a literary pose? You’re favorite line from the Ginger Man was, “Sebastian, thou art blessed,” and many times you mumbled those words when you were dead drunk or coming down from a wild drug trip. Was it worth it to devote your life to becoming the Ginger Man? I hope whatever it was that you saw from the bottom of your shot glass or behind that ampule of smack provided you succor from the lifetime of hurt the Ginger Man brought you.

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