Friday, May 30, 2014

Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

While planning to go to New Orleans from Ft. Lauderdale, I was told two things: Do not eat the Lucky Dogs and read A Confederacy of Dunces so I would know why. John Kennedy Toole's novel was supposed to tell me everything I needed to know about New Orleans. I love books, especially new books I haven't read, so I picked up the book and read it. That was 1984.

Writing about the French Quarter and New Orleans again in my followup novel to Among Women, I decided to pick up A Confederacy of Dunces (for my Kindle) and read it again. It was like reading the book for the first time: a little baffling, but addictive, much like Lucky Dogs, which I used to sell in the French Quarter. Ignatius J. Reilly, the central character and troublemaker in the novel, works for Lucky Dogs under the name of Paradise Foods, Inc. Toole changed the name of the company, but not the name of the owner, and Clyde was still sending out vendors when I walked through their door in 1984, but that's another story for another time.

Ignatius Jacque Reilly is a behemoth of a man-child with a mammoth vocabulary and a fixation on ancient literature. He has a Masters Degree in literature but has never worked a day in his life. While waiting for his mother outside D. H. Holmes on Canal Street, he is accosted by Officer Mancuso, a New Orleans police officer, starting a near riot from which Mrs. Reilly extracts Ignatius and flees down the street to her car in the rain, backing into a house that will cost her more than $1000 and force her hermit son into the work force. It is Ignatius's trials and tribulations -- and chaos -- in the work force that is the central focus of A Confederacy of Dunces around which the other characters revolve. Ignatius is the black hole which devours everything -- or at least attempts to devour -- all in his path.

With his green hunting cap (ear flaps usually dangling) on his head and his voluminous parka and dangling scarf that looks more like a blanket, Ignatius trolls the waters of commerce wreaking havoc and sowing the seeds of chaos wherever he goes spouting his Medieval views on the world spouting Boethius and chastity. The one fixed point in Ignatius's life is the Minx, Myrna Minkoff, with whom he trades wit and social monkey wrenches in order to create a more perfect world in their disparate views and completely antithetical to each other. Myrna is free with her female charms and Ignatius keeps a death grip on his virginity, both struggling to bend the other to their view of the world.

John Kennedy Toole's vision of the world of New Orleans as seen through Ignatius J. Reilly's eyes and pyloric valve dysfunctions, was published in 1980, 11 years after his suicide. Toole's mother stormed the bastions at Tulane University to make her son's dreams of publication real, earning Toole a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Toole took his title from one of Johnathan Swift's essays: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." Dunces abound in Toole's 1960s New Orleanian world from 30-year-old Ignatius right down the line through his alcohol baking and imbibing mother and her friends, among which Officer Mancuso numbers, right on to the denizens of the Night of Joy where Burma Jones, a colored porter working for slave wages to avoid a vagrancy charge, the owner, wife, and employees of Levy Pants, and right on to the Sergeant at the precinct who is determined to make Mancuso's life as miserable as possible. Peppered by letters and telegrams between Myrna Minkoff and Ignatius, A Confederacy of Dunces is a bloody train wreck that readers can't avoid watching until the last moment. 

Toole's vision of New Orleans was not too far from what I found in 1984, although with fewer dunces and and dark humor. Reading the novel again was as fresh as reading it for the first time and I was unable to put the book down until I had read the last word. Ignatius is equal parts humorous and shocking and the machinations of Santa Battaglia, Irene Reilly's bowling partner, matchmaker, and stirrer of pots, a sad and infuriating meddler. The exchanges between Gus Levy and his bored wife as she badgers Gus and begins yet another  new projects while going up and down on her exercise board ("Leave the board out of this.") provide more train wrecks to goggle at.

In short, join Ignatius on his downward spiral from his hermit's existence in his mother's home into the working world of New Orleans as his pyloric valve determines his actions while he reforms the world in his own image. A Confederacy of Dunces is 5/5 in my estimation.

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