A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
It may be an unfashionable view, but I find Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 almost impossible to read. I get so far and find I can’t go any further. Some years later I pick it up and the same thing happens again, my own peculiar version of Catch 22. Perhaps I’m prejudiced because the man who discovered the book, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster by the name of Robert Gottlieb, rejected Toole’s book after two years of protracted correspondence. Toole’s life spiralled out of control and he committed suicide near Biloxi in Mississippi in March 1969, aged 31. Due to his mother’s persistence it finally saw the light of day in 1980, winning the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, the only writer to be so honoured. Much good it did him.
The book is a picaresque novel detailing the adventures of a misfit in New Orleans, Ignatius J Reilly. There are Quixotic overtones as the anti-hero, an enormous slob of a man, rails against what he perceives to be the evils of society and trying to foist his own philosophy, based on Boethius, on the unsuspecting public. Ignatius is clumsy, walking disaster, a hypochondriac who will bore anyone in earshot about the state of his pyloric valve, eccentrically dressed with a preposterous green deerstalker perched atop of his oversized head, trapped by his own delusions of grandeur, a compulsive liar, blunt to the point of rudeness and unable to hold down a job. He really does not have much going for him.
Toole walks a fine line with his larger than life character. He joins in with us at laughing at his ludicrous creation but does it in a way that elicits sympathy. You wouldn’t want to live next door to the gaseous oaf, but you end up having a great deal of sympathy for him and hope that he finds a way out of the downward spiral that is his fate, or according to his philosophy, what the wheel of Fortuna has determined.
Reilly is a worry to his mother and she eventually conspires to send him to a lunatic asylum. After a hilarious motor accident which results in significant structural damage and a big bill for compensation, Ignatius is forced to earn a living. Naturally, he wreaks havoc, initially as a filing clerk at Levy’s Pants, where he incites a strike, and as a hot dog seller where he gets himself involved in a scam to distribute pornography, centring around a house of ill repute. Events come to a hilarious head towards the end of the book.
Toole leaves us with a sense of hope from all the carnage that his comic creation has caused. His mother is finally able to stand her ground against Ignatius while still showing that, for all his faults, she still loves him. Gus Levy, the owner of Levy Pants, finally releases himself from the shackles of the past and looks forward to driving his business forward, manufacturing Bermuda shorts, with renewed gusto. The put upon African American vagrant-cum-bar sweeper, Burma Jones, through a clever piece of PR manipulation, engineers his escape from a life of vagrancy.
The book is very funny and has many memorable moments. Toole’s handling of colour may jar with many modern readers, although you could make a strong case for arguing that Burma Jones is the real hero of the story, showing a savviness and sense of compassion that all the other characters lack. The title, by the way, comes from Jonathan Swift’s essay, Thoughts on Various Subjects Moral and Diverting; “when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”. Is Burma, rather than Ignatius, Toole’s true genius?
I really enjoyed the book.