Friday, September 5, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” -- Jonathan Swift

Toole’s novel borrows from this Swift quote and, simply put, creates a comic masterpiece centered around the concept.

The main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is a fat, thirty-year old man still living with his mother. He works on a manuscript most days (which Toole allows us to glimpse humorous pieces of it) and couples his writing with an occasional afternoon movie where he vociferously bellows at the screen.

Ignatius has been referred to as a “Don Quixote” character, but this fit isn’t quite right for someone who abhors society and whose intentions are to 'promote' himself. He is more like a cynical Mr. Magoo on steroids. He bumbles his way through one comical situation after another, almost always coming out unscathed even though others around him may not be so lucky.

Ignatius prefers to remain in his hometown, the French Quarter of New Orleans. He explains, more than once, that the time he traveled to Baton Rouge on a Greyhound Scenicruiser bus was a traumatic experience, and is unmoved by the fact that his friends and family have tired of hearing him repeat the adventure.

His mother, who babied him his whole life, finally forces Ignatius to get a job. The social outcast is able to find work at Levy Pants, where the office manager, Mr. Gonzalez, is a meek push-over, and the office clerk, Miss Trixie, suffers from dementia. An ill-fated employee at Levy is not employed for long as Ignatius sees to it that the person is fired within his first few days. The ground is fertile for Ignatius to plant his demands and he establishes that he will show up an hour late so he is refreshed for work. He spends the workday pointlessly making up banners for the office and the only filing he does is into the garbage can.

The book makes pointed commentaries on modern society (the early 1960s). As Ignatius enters the factory labored by African-Americans, he thinks, "...mechanized Negro slavery; it represents the progress which the Negro has made from picking cotton to tailoring it." Because he’s easily bored and wants to impress an old girlfriend, Ignatius leads the workers in a revolt against Mr. Gonzalez in a "Crusade for Moorish Dignity." Instead of accomplishing the goal, his followers end up disatisfied with him and he ends up unemployed. (His second job of selling hot dogs, where he eats more than he sells, is also amusing. He is able to hang on the job only because the owner, Mr. Clyde, is desperate for help.)

After meeting a colorful homosexual, Dorian Greene, who loves to throw outrageous parties, Ignatius believes world peace could be achieved if homosexuals infiltrated the armed forces and government offices. Dorian agrees and helps out by hosting a rally to kick off the event; of course, politically incorrect comedy ensues.

And so it goes with A Confederacy of Dunces where fools can have a profound impact in unintentional ways. Writing funny material takes a natural skill that is apparent with Toole. Donald E. Westlake is the only other comedic author who has made me laugh so hard.

Despite his talent, Toole was never published in his lifetime. He committed suicide in 1969 and his mother brought the Dunces manuscript to novelist, Walker Percy, who was instrumental in getting it published in 1980. A year later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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pattinase (abbott) said...

One of the saddest stories in literature, isn't it?

David Cranmer said...

It sure is. Reading Toole's life story is unbelievably sad and in some ways even more interesting than Dunces. He was quite a talent.

RReynolds said...

One of the modern classics. I've read it twice myself. John Belushi and later Chris Farley were slated to star in the movie version. It would be a great film with the right talent.

jab said...

It would be unbearably sad were it not for that Jones character. Whoa!

Joe Boland

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi David,

I actually "read" this on audio tape years ago.

I always wondered what else Toole might have written.


David Cranmer said...

RReynolds, Belushi would have been good but I'm afraid H-wood would mess this one up.

Joe, I saw this as a dark comedy... I mean it's tragic (sad) in the sense that a lot of this story is true to life. I should have mentioned Burma Jones because he is a central part of the plot.

Terrie, He had one other posthumous release called The Neon Bible but it's not considered on par with Dunces. His mother didn't want it released, but after she died, other family members allowed it's publication, and in 1995, it was made into a movie.


Not ever read it but it sounds like something I should discover.

Barrie said...

I read this Friday's Forgotten Books and wonder if I've been living under a rock. How are there so many I've never heard of? Anyway....great review.Thanks