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A Confederacy of Dunces ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1981)

    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, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

There's always a danger, when the story of a book's publication or an author's biography is really compelling, that our natural fascination with the background elements will effect how we judge the novel itself.  I believe John Kennedy Toole's very funny, but badly flawed, Confederacy of Dunces, to be an instance where this happened.  For anyone not familiar with the circumstances surrounding the book, Toole's mother, Thelma, pestered Walker Percy until he consented to read her dead son's "great" novel.  Percy, to his great surprise, found the huge manuscript, which was presented to him on badly smeared carbon paper, compulsively readable.  As it turned out, Toole had committed suicide in 1969, and his frustration at his inability to get the book published may have been a contributing factor; at least, such a supposition makes for an even better story.  Percy helped to get the book published, by the Louisiana State University Press, and it went on to become a surprise best seller and won a posthumous, by 12 years, Pulitzer Prize.

The novel tells the story of thirty year old Ignatius J. Reilly of New Orleans, an eccentric medievalist, living at home with his mother, whom he torments, and of his one man war against modernity.  Ignatius, who is an undeniably original comic creation, is a hugely fat bundle of body functions, paranoia and obsessions, topped with a green hunting cap, who spends all of his considerable free time eating, attending movies, and locked in his disgusting room committing his various demented thoughts to his stacks of Big Chief writing tablets.

The story opens with Ignatius being arrested by the hapless Patrolman Mancuso, an arrest which soon goes awry and sends Ignatius and his mother in search of liquid comfort, which they find at the Night of Joy bar.  While Mrs. Reilly tipples, Ignatius regales her and various dumbfounded listeners with the story of his ill-fated trip to Baton Rouge aboard a Greyhound Scenicruiser for a job interview, a trip which was apparently so traumatic that it has kept him from working ever since.  But later that night Mrs. Reilly backs into another car and in order to pay for the damages Ignatius is forced to seek work.

The misanthrope, turned loose on the work a day world, proceeds to do hilarious damage to various employers, coworkers and customers, while using his experiences as the basis for a memoir titled : The Journal of a Working Boy, or, Up from Sloth.  His misadventures at Levy Pants are particularly funny, as he sends abusive letters to clients and tries leading a revolt by the firm's largely black workforce, marching beneath a banner, actually one of his badly stained bedsheets, declaring the "Crusade for Moorish Dignity."

From there he goes on to a job as a hot dog vendor, an attempt to found a new political party, and all the while carries out bitter vendettas against his mother, Patrolman Mancuso, and Myrna Minkoff, a supposed girlfriend from college.  All of this is quite funny, but at the same time it's fairly easy to see why it was not considered publishable.  In the first place it is much too long and loses its focus as it goes along, before rallying at the end.  Secondly, Ignatius, though amusing, is just too far over the top to command our sympathies.  His fascination with body functions and his erotic dreams of a departed pet collie are less shocking now, when even Disney movies are filled with fart jokes, than they were twenty and thirty years ago, but it still gets to be a little much.  Lastly, and most importantly, Ignatius is so screwed up himself, and his various screeds are so contradictory, that his general opposition to the modern age, which could have served as a badly needed unifying theme for the whole novel, and have given it some intellectual heft, ends up being pretty incoherent and hypocritical.

A great novel might well have been made out of these raw materials, had Toole lived and a good editor gotten ahold of him.  But we'll never know.  What we have instead is a very amusing, sometimes even laugh-out-loud-funny book, which adds up to less than the sum of its parts.  The tragic fact that a talented author killed himself before he could make the changes necessary to turn this into a first rate novel should neither diminish, nor make us overstate, what he did achieve.


Grade: (B-)


John Toole Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John Kennedy Toole
-ESSAY: The Sin of Wit (LEE OSER, JUNE 07, 2024, Religion & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: The Uneasy Afterlife of “A Confederacy of Dunces”: The book has long been considered a classic. But, forty years after its publication, its virtues seem inextricable from its flaws. (Tom Bissell, January 5, 2021, New Yorker)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Living in the Confederacy of Dunces: There's an eerie parallel at work between Ignatius Reilly and vain, overeducated young adults who can’t hold a job, live healthily, or maintain a friend. (Auguste Meyrat, 3/01/24, Law & Liberty)

Book-related and General Links:
-The John Kennedy Toole Papers (
    -John Kennedy Toole; A Confederacy of Dunces Index Page (
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : A Confederacy of Dunces  John Kennedy Toole
    -ARTICLE : Toole's First Novel (Edwin McDowell , NY Times, May 3, 1989)
    -OBIT : MOTHER OF AUTHOR TOOLE DIES Thelma Ducoing Toole (August 19, 1984, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : AUTHORS AND PARENTS: 'BE MORE LIKE GRAHAM GREENE, DEAR'  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : PUBLISHERS' CONFESSIONS-REJECTIONS I REGRET  (Caryn James, May 6, 1984, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Confederacy of Dunces : The cult of the dunces : John Kennedy Toole killed himself because he couldn't get his novel published. What a mistake (MEREDITH RENWICK, Jam! Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of The Neon Bible By John Kennedy Toole (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of IGNATIUS RISING:  The Life of John Kennedy Toole.  By René Pol Nevils  and Deborah George Hardy (JOHN DeMERS , Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of  Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole  By Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy (Kevin Allman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of  Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole  By Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy (Wade Stevens Ricks,Boston Globe)
    -BOOK LIST : MODERN NOVELS; THE 99 BEST (Anthony Burgess, NY Times Book Review, February 5, 1984)

    -Guide to New Orleans Literature (The K-12 Teaching & Learning Center, Access Indiana)