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A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Age: Teen & up
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is by far one of the most entertaining and amusing books I’ve read to date. I picked this book up a Border’s Express 4 years ago that was going out of business and all items were 40% off. I didn’t know anything about this book, except that the title sounded vaguely familiar and I was slightly mesmerized by the cartoonish cover. Well, unfortunately, once this book ended up on my bookshelf, it decided to stay there for a quite some time. I finally decided to pick it up and read it, mostly at my friend’s urging, and I am very very glad I did. A friend had described the book to me like this during a chat conversation:
“yeah, he’s quite offensive, actually,
but the book is obviously a satire
the main character is very educated and pompous
he sticks out like a sore thumb in New Orleans, where he lives”
So, I had this image of a pompous genius with social ineptness in my head when I picked up this book. Then I started reading:
“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.”
This is the reader’s first introduction to Ignatius J. Reilly. An obese, flatulent, gluttonous 30 year old, still living with his mother, unable to make any kind of life for himself. I think for the first few chapters, I kept flipping to look at the cover of the book to see the visual image of Ignatius J. Reilly every time he opened his mouth in the book. As my friend already summarized, this book is a satire, and it is a gritty look at the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1960’s. Toole manages to discuss racism, political and social strife through the comedic actions of Ignatius. There is social and racial commentary via Burma Jones, an African American man, working below minimum wage, on fear that he’ll be arrested for being a “vagran” and just for being a black man. There is social commentary in the form of the wealthy Levy’s with their dysfunctional world-view and, as well as Lana Lee, the owner of an infamous bar/stripclub.
The plot: After an attempted arrest, Ignatius and his mother escape and hide in a very horrid bar/stripclub. As they leave, Ignatius’ mother is rather drunk, gets behind the wheel and backs the car up into a building. Subsequently, the Reilly’s are sued for $1,020.oo in damages. In order to pay off this debt, Ignatius takes a couple of jobs. First he works as a clerical assistant for the floundering Levy Pants, and then as a more hilarious hot-dog vendor. No matter what he does, Ignatius leaves a trail of wreckage, and confusion behind him. When not working, and also while working, Ignatius is constantly writing on his Big Chief tablets about his insights in the moral downfall of modern civilization. The characters are just incredible and so animated and colorful. All the characters end up coming together in the end, there are no loose strings.
Although this book was written in the 1960’s, Toole wrote this book while living in Puerto Rico for two years. Sadly, this book was not published during his lifetime. Hounded by depression, Toole committed suicide in 1969 after Simon and Schuster rejected his book, claiming it was a book about nothing.
After his death, his mother went to Walker Percy insisting that he read the manuscript. Percy instantly fell in love with the work, and even provides the forward for the publication. A Confederacy of Dunces has won the Pulitzer Price and has been translated into 18 languages. Toole’s other work, Neon Bible, was written when he was 16, and was also posthumously published in 1989.
I really hope that anyone who has the book on their to-be-read list can find a way to nudge it up a couple of slots. The characters are endearing, you keep thinking, what is going to happen next? Oh no! why is he saying those things? Since Ignatius is a pedantic, it would be helpful to keep a dictionary nearby to look up some of his polysyllabic vocabulary that shoots out of his mouth with a playful and natural ease.
A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press, 1980
Find this book at your local library