This morning, I finally finished Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and as a result, my neurons are still a little sore from figuring out whatever the heck was going on in that “novel.”
(Don’t worry, a review of that book is coming up.)
Thankfully, I scheduled today to blog about a far different book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I guarantee it will be one of the funniest, weirdest, and wackiest novels you’ll ever read that also happens to be a Pulitzer Prize winner. Not only should you dust it off, but you should probably read it again immediately after finishing it, as I was tempted to do, as a sort of victory lap to soak up Toole’s hilarious and harrowing tale of Ignatius J. Reilly.
Ignatius is a character unparalleled in literature. I don’t know if it’s possible to be overeducated, but if such a concept exists, Ignatius is the definition. He talks like a walking thesaurus, with a vocabulary that is so out-of-place compared to the New Orleans dialects surrounding him that it’s both jarring and ridiculous.
Ignatius lives with his mother in the early 1960s in the Crescent City, and his chief occupation seems to be composing an epic treatise on history and philosophy. But when his mom accidentally drives into a building and faces a resulting civil lawsuit payment, Ignatius is set off to find a decent-paying job. This leads him to encounter New Orleans figures just as bizarre and entertaining as him.
The barkeeper Lana Lee with a mysterious plot to turn her dive into a success.
The hapless Patrolman Manusco, a police officer who dresses in ridiculous costumes so he can arrest “suspicious characters.”
A failing pants tycoon and his psychoanalyzing wife.
An irate hot dog vendor Ignatius describes as a “mogul of frankfurters.”
These myriad characters all intersect in the novel’s bewildering finale, but as I read Confederacy, I realized that I really didn’t want to see them disappear once I reached the last page. Toole puts so much color and pizazz into these characters that the story they create becomes secondary.
Ignatius himself stands out as the most brilliant of these figures. His disdain for the postmodern world is infinite, but as the novel progresses, he becomes more and more entrenched in the seedy society and politics around him. He’s a sort of condescending, rude Don Quixote obsessed with the cycles of “Fortuna.” Ignatius is a bundle of contradictions: he is apathetic of real problems in his life, such as finding steady work and supporting his mother financially, but dedicates himself to a tit-for-tat snail mail spat with a frenemy of his and will tell anyone within earshot of the terrifying experience he once had going on a bus to Baton Rouge, a journey that appears to have convinced Ignatius that he should never venture outside of New Orleans ever again in his life.
Of course, I can only write for so long about Ignatius. He truly must be read to be believed and appreciated. I found myself empathizing and seething against him, sometimes on the same page. Besides his characters, Toole also succeeds in painting a vivid scene of postwar New Orleans, so much so that the city feels like another character itself.
There is a tragic note to add about A Confederacy of Dunces. John Kennedy Toole struggled to find a publisher for the novel and killed himself in 1969. A decade later, Confederacy finally hit bookstands and wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize. It’s beyond sad that Toole never was able to see the eventual success his novel would have. That said, I’m glad I was able to honor him and his work by reading it these past few weeks, and hopefully you’ll have the opportunity to do so, too.