I just finished reading A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, for the second time. The first time was 30 years ago and I think I appreciated it more this time around because I now realize just how visionary Toole was. The book was written in the 1960’s and the circumstances surrounding how the book came to be are bizarre. It is most unfortunate, but aside from a first novel written at the age of 16, A Confederacy of Dunces is the only book Toole ever wrote. Much like David Foster Wallace, Toole struggled with depression, and after years of trying and failing to get A Confederacy of Dunces published and having so totally invested himself in the work, he committed suicide. His mother then toiled for many unsuccessful years to get her son’s book published posthumously until finding Walker Percy, the American author, now deceased, who at the time was teaching at Loyola University. Percy reluctantly began to read the book, but what started as a guilt read ended in astonishment, and A Confederacy of Dunces found a champion, finally achieving publication in 1980.
A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. One can only imagine how many other books Toole would have written but we are left with only this gem as well as his first, The Neon Bible. Sad that, but I’d like to think he’s already reincarnated as a brilliant 20-something, tossing out prose the way parents dole out Halloween candy. We’ll never know, though, will we?
And now, on to the review.
A more unlikely protagonist you won’t find in Ignatius Reilly: he’s obese, he’s a slob, he never removes his green hunting cap (not even to take a bath which, as far as we can tell, is not often), he has “valve” issues, and he’s a pubescent teenager experiencing the throws of sexuality in the body of a full-grown man. He also eschews sex, except for the single-handed kind, has a love/hate relationship with his mother whom he depends on for support, and a girlfriend to whom he can’t go a week without writing scandalously insulting letters. He has no job, no money, and such an inflated opinion of himself that you pity the people who have to live with him. When Ignatius’s mother Irene insists that her college-educated lay-a-bout son go get a job or else, Ignatius must take to the streets in search of employment. When he does, each albeit short-lived experience is more outlandish than the last. And while it’s true that Ignatius is a narcissistic windbag of the highest caliber, he’s a smart windbag and often there are giant hairballs of truth in his diatribe even while the internal moral compass that he steadfastly tries to maintain to keep his equilibrium wavers more than true North in the 21st century. As smart, funny, insightful comedies go, this book ranks among the best.
A Confederacy of Dunces is set in New Orleans in the 60’s, then and now a city of dichotomies. If you are poor in New Orleans, there are very few opportunities to climb the proverbial ladder of success, a theme explored in the novel with hilarious outcomes. Toole’s characters could just as easily be navigating New Orleans today as racial inequality, gay rights, police brutality, and even America’s porn obsession are all front and center in this story. The plot is fresh and exhilarating and the philosophical musings on life and the world are provided at no extra charge. There’s a reason A Confederacy of Dunces won literature’s highest prize and it’s a shame Toole wasn’t around to claim it.