The Electric Commentary

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Book Review: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces is really my only connection to New Orleans that does not appear on the "E" Network. I read the book for the first time about a year ago, and it really struck me and stuck with me. It is the type of book that you find yourself quoting, or relating to, more and more as time goes on.

Toole wrote this book in the mid 60's and unfortunately did not live to see it published. He committed suicide in 1969, and from that point on his mother labored continuously to see it published. It took her seven years but she finally managed to get it published by the LSU Press, and in 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

The protagonist is one of the most colorful characters in literature, a Mr. Ignatius J. Reilly. He is a fat, blowhard, unemployed, communist who lives with his mom, idolizes the philosopher Boethius, and has only one friend, with whom he communicates by post.

He is annoying, grating, repulsive, and completely unlikeable, and yet, about 1/3 of the way through the book you realize that you are rooting for him, and you start to wonder why. Toole manages to turn him into a hero on an ill-conceived quest over which he has little control. Like a Don Quixote with horrible gas problems, he wanders the dirtier parts of New Orleans both seeking, and seeking to avoid, employment at all costs:


A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly's supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person's lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one's soul.


And New Orleans! What a city it is! Toole has puts you right into the middle of authentic New Orleans, language, dampness, and all. It is alternatively extremely beautiful and simultaneously terrifying, and by the end of it, you realize that Mardi Gras really isn't that strange after all. When it is muggy and dark it almost sounds like Victorian England, but with strip clubs. And when Ignatius is forced into the back alleys, and into the alternative culture, it is both wondrous and dreadful, as if he managed to cram his bloated body into Alice's rabbit hole.

Most locations are accurately portrayed (with only slight variances, largely for comedic effect), and (until recently):

A bronze statue of Ignatius J. Reilly can be found under the clock at the Chateau Sonesta Hotel at 800 Iberville Street, New Orleans, the former site of the D.H. Holmes Department Store. The statue mimics the opening scene: Ignatius waits for his mother under the D.H. Holmes clock, clutching a Werlein's shopping bag, dressed in a hunting cap, flannel shirt, baggy pants and scarf, 'studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste.'


Ignatius is really a bit player in life, although he is a very colorful bit player. He has an effect on the lives of all the minor characters, and his presence forces a resolution so tightly and neatly wrapped up (yet utterly believable) that if Ignatius ever realized what was happening around him all of his suspicions about the Wheel of Fortune (Oh, Fortuna!) would be instantly confirmed.

If you're in the mood to read a rich, endearing (and yes, very gritty) book about New Orleans, you couldn't do much better. One more fun fact from the Wikipedia:

The structure of the book mirrors the structure of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (Ignatius's favorite book; a copy of it is a central plot device) in several ways. The book is divided into chapters, each of which is divided into a varying number of subchapters. Key parts of some chapters are outside of the main narrative; in Consolation these take the form of a prosimeter, while in Confederacy they take the form of journal entries by Ignatius or letters between himself and Myrna.


Toole clearly intended to give us more, as the book ends somewhat abruptly. This is a tragedy, but at least we have what we have.

5 Comments:

  • great book. i find myself trying to insert "mongoloid" into everyday conversation. jones is probably my favorite character. whoa!

    By Blogger ethan, at 9:56 AM  

  • I started reading A Confederacy of Dunces for the first time on Monday, and I can't believe how many references to it I've seen since then. A guy sat down next to me on the El on Wednesday and he was reading it, too. That has never happened to me before -- and I always participate in the One Book, One Chicago program. Two different co-workers saw it on my desk and told me it's one of their favorite books. This seems to be a book that many people haven't heard of, but just about everyone who has read it loves it.

    By Blogger MDS, at 11:21 AM  

  • This is probably the funniest book I've ever read, and it's not even a real comedy.

    I think your review is pretty dead-on, but why do you call him a bit player? Maybe he's more of a catalyst, setting off a chain of hysterical events in NOLA that he really has very little to do with, but I'd hesistate to call him a bit player. Angelo Mancuso, now he's a bit player.

    Whoa! Great, great, great book...

    --Gloria

    By Blogger Ace Cowboy, at 10:19 AM  

  • "Bit player" probably wasn't the right word. Catalyst would have been better. I guess I was trying to get across the point that he exists sort of outside the plot, but still has an effect on it.

    It is about him, primarily, but the action (at least the action that advances plot) is in the hands of everyone else.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 11:05 AM  

  • And Mancuso is definitely a bit player. Poor guy. I still feel bad for him, partly because I laughed so hard at him.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 11:07 AM  

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