Monday, January 7, 2013

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Published posthumously, A Confederacy of Dunces is the Pulitzer winning prize novel by John Kennedy Toole that recounts a few weeks in the life of Ignatius Reilly. Reilly is described in the novel
"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. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly's supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store....."
He has been commemorated in New Orleans by a statue that stands in the city. And it's no wonder since he is one of the most memorable characters in American contemporary literature. The book is both comedic and tragic at the same time because of the escapades of Reilly.

by Natalie Maynor on Flickr
Ignatius is a bafoonlike person who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is educated, but cannot keep a job, a major bone of contention with his mother. He is plagued with flatulence and general malaise. To his credit, he does try to get a job and lands one first as a file clerk in the Levy Pants factory, and then as a hot dog vendor for Paradise hot dogs. Each one ends as a result of an episode of lunacy on Reilly's part as well as the supporting cast of characters.  We look in on these episodes through a window of Ignatius Reilly's mind. He gives us insight into his actions through prolific journals that he keeps. 

Surrounding Ignatius are a plethora of characters  that beg to be caricatured. His mother, drunk much of the time still drives and gets into an accident that results in her having to pay major damages. The urgency for Ignatius to get a job is acerbated because of this incident. The Night of Joy is the watering hole of choice run by Lana Lee who is also head of a pornography ring. Then there is Patrolman Mancuso, who believes Ignatius is a pervert and attempts to arrest him. Mancuso himself is the object of his sergeant's wrath and spends days locked up in a bathroom. Mancuso's aunt, Santa Battaglia, becomes close friends and is a bowling partner for Mrs. Reilly. She eventually plays matchmaker in setting up Ignatius' mother with Claude Robichaux. Robichaux believes Ignatius is crazy and advocates admitting him to Charity Hospital. Dorian Green is a flamboyant homosexual who throws extravagant parties. Ignatius wants him and his friends to join the armed forces to replace war with orgies. The Levys own Levy Pants and are the perfect of unconnected noveau rich who have come upon hard times. Finally, there is Myrna Minkoff. In contrast to Mrs. Reilly, she believes that sex is the answer to life's problems. She maintains a correspondence with Ignatius throughout encouraging him and in the end becomes a salvation for him.

 This novel did not engage me at first. However, as I got to know Ignatius and the other members of the novel's cast, I became totally caught up in the escapades. The pictures that race through your mind are clearly painted by the command of words and skillful articulation of description by Toole. At times I thought I was watching episodes of Seinfeld - a series of events that may or may not be connected. Funny, but sad, too. I felt sorry for Ignatius at the same time I was laughing at him. A Confederacy of Dunces  deserves a second read - if only I had the time.

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