Tuesday, May 12, 2009

29. Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

History: This book was published in 1980, 11 years after the author's suicide. The book was published through the efforts of writer Walker Percy and Toole's mother Thelma Toole, quickly becoming a cult classic, and later a mainstream success. Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
Plot: That contemptuous hypochondriac, that deadbeat ideologue, that gluttonous moocher Ignatius Reilly. A mountainous college graduate living off his mother's welfare check in her home on one of New Orleans seedy back streets. He spends most of his time waxing melodramatically philosophic, hiding out in the squalor of his bedroom, filling Big Chief writing tablets with his unique brand of Luddite/medievalist/anti-Enlightenment thought and penning incendiary letters to his sex-crazed ex-college-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff. His beleaguered mother by turns dotes and turns on him in their schizophrenic dance between adult child and aging parent.
Waiting on Canal Street for his mother to come back from an arthritis consultation with her doctor, Ignatius gets hauled off by a cop (who thinks the mustachioed mountain in tweed trousers, plaid flannel shirt and trademark green hunting cap looks suspicious). Thus begins a tailspin into one misadventure followed by another and another ad infinitum. Ignatius and his mother, traumatized by the event, step into a sleazy strip joint and drink themselves silly. As they leave, Mrs. Reilly promptly plows her Plymouth into a building.
The dollars in damages they need to pay for their little accident cannot be met by Mrs. Reilly's meager welfare check. So it is that Ignatius grudgingly begins a series of jobs that suck him ever-deeper into the seamy underbelly of 1960s New Orleans. Ignatius' impact leaves the poor souls in his wake insensible and gaping. His work at Levy Pants (file clerk) and for Paradise Vendors (hotdog-pushcart man) bring Ignatius to lead a workers' revolt and become an unwitting soft-core-porn distribution stooge. His arrogance (and flatulence) touch the people he encounters in horrible ways, yet his indignant, malicious blunders make it possible for those he's injured (intentionally or not) to come out better at the far end of the story.
Ignatius' long-suffering but increasingly independent mother is the novel's unsung heroine. She's by turns insufferably dumb and surprisingly sly. Patrolman Mancuso's decline, fall, and eventual rise all derive from his brush with Ignatius, and his degradations at the behest of his police superiors has readers laughing behind their hands. The black vagrant Jones is the only character in the whole bunch of idiots who can really see clearly, nevermind that he's forever looking out at the world through dark glasses and a cloud of his own cigarette smoke.
Review: A Confederacy of Dunces is simply and insistently a great, perfect comedy of errors and airs, a farce of Olympic proportions. Ignatius J. Reilly could easily have simply been a fat, grumpy, ignorant anti-hero, but there's something about the depth and complexity of the characterisation - not just of Ignatius, but all of the characters - that adds to the farcical plot and that enriches the story. The best farce is the kind that sneaks up on you - the kind that takes events that are innocent when they happen in isolation and combines them in an alchemical way to create situations of pure belly-laugh ridiculousness. I suppose the thing that makes this more than a farce is the fact that the main characters all grow, change and develop throughout the story so that when we leave them we have seen them become more than they were when we met them. The other thing about the characters is that even though they are all so flawed and mismatched, they all manage to retain an inner dignity, even the grotesque Ignatius and the hopeless Myrna Minkoff. It's an indication of O'Toole's talent that I breathed a sigh of relief when the chaotic-yet-happy ending finally arrived. I may not ever want to actually meet Ignatius J. Reilly, but I did develop a perverse kind of fondness for him, and though I'm not averse to the idea of making him squirm, I would never want any lasting harm to come to him.
Opening Line: “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”
Closing Line: “Taking the pigtail in one of his paws, he pressed it warmly to his wet mustache.”
Quotes: “ She was thinking of the PEACE TO MEN OF GOOD WILL sign that Ignatius had tacked to the front of their house after he had come home from work... 'What you think about somebody wants peace, Claude?' 'That sounds like a communiss to me.'"
"I dust a bit...in addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip."
Rating: Good

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