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A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
reprinted by Grove Press, 1987
(first published 1980)

review by John Tintera

Sadly, first-time author John Kennedy Toole took his own life in 1969; he was only 32 years old. The poignancy of Toole’s story is deeper still when you consider that his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was not published during his lifetime. When it was finally published 11 years after his death, it won the Pulitzer Prize. That it came to be published at all is something of a miracle. Rather than pursue the normal publishing channels, the author’s mother set her sights on the famous novelist Walker Percy, who was teaching at a local university. Percy, who tells the story in the book’s Foreword, resisted as best he could, but, due to the persistence of the determined mother, eventually agreed to read the manuscript. Now, you can’t walk into a Barnes & Noble without seeing copies of John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece. Toole looks back toward Dickens and Balzac for literary inspiration, and has bequeathed us one of the most outrageously entertaining farces of all time. Yet, there is a deep sense of pathos underlying A Confederacy, which makes it all the more true.

The book opens with an epigraph from the great satirist, Jonathan Swift, that goes, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” It’s impossible to think of a more apt way to begin the story of Ignatius J. Reilly. Never before has a person been more convinced of his own genius, and the idiocy of those around him. Yet, at the same time, he is in almost every way the most preposterous candidate for such a flattering name.

Ignatius is an unemployed, overweight, self-centered, socially inept young man who wears a hunting cap, wool coat and scarf year-round despite the fact that he lives in the sultry climate of New Orleans. He resides with is mother, a widow, in a ramshackle working-class neighborhood. Together with their impoverished neighbors they speak in a dialect closer to that of Hoboken, New Jersey, or Astoria, Queens, than the patois of The Crescent City. Since his diet consists chiefly of pastries and a local Louisiana cola (now defunct) called Dr. Nut, he is constantly either complaining of gastric difficulties, or relieving them through various eruptions. In fact, when under any sort of pressure, Ignatius is known to suffer from an obscure gastric malady (probably of his own invention) which he calls the shutting of his pyloric valve. Despite all of this, Ignatius thinks of himself as a Christian philosopher in the tradition of Boethius and maintains an open contempt for the mores of the modern world.

The events of the novel center on a period of several weeks in the life of Ignatius where things come to a head. In the opening scene, Ignatius’ mother crashes her car into a building, racking up a repair bill that they are too poor to pay. After hearing about the accident and the big bill, Mrs. Reilly’s friend, Santa Battaglia, offers her opinion that Mrs. Reilly’s good-for-nothing son should get a job. Ignatius of course protests, but in the end sees no way out and answers an ad for a filing clerk at a dodderinggarment factory known as Levy Pants. Unequal to even the most menial work, Ignatius is able to survive a series of comic adventures, mostly of his own making, before being driven out of New Orleans ahead of the men in white coats.

In addition to Ignatius and his mother, there are a host of humorous minor characters including an inept cop, a chain-smoking ex-con, a senile receptionist, a clutzy exotic dancer, a bored socialite, a down-and-out male prostitute, and the above-mentioned Santa Battaglia. The city of New Orleans itself could even be considered a minor character, given its prominence in the narrative.

Notwithstanding all of its buffoonery and zaniness, Dunces is a serious novel. The fact is, the modern world is pretty screwed up. Toole was writing during the tumultuous sixties, and many of the concerns of that decade, especially race relations and the civil rights movement, are parodied in the book. Modern psychology, gay rights, college education, law enforcement, modern commerce, and leftist social reform efforts are also skewered. If Toole were writing today, there’s no doubt that he would set his sights on the religious right, Planned Parenthood, talk radio, Court TV, and any other cultural institution that takes itself too seriously. Toole reminds us that the root problem with modernity is not inequality or lack of justice, but a failure to give metaphysics its due. Unfortunately, this is no less true of our religious institutions, many of which put more time and effort helping people “live more abundantly” than getting them to understand their place in the cosmos (which is very small).

It’s interesting to think what Ignatius would have been like had he lived in the thirteenth century. He probably would have joined the priestly class or become a monk. These days, however, those vocations require almost super-human discipline as a pre-requisite. Certainly a person of Ignatius’ appetites would not last five minutes in a seminary. In fact, he’s a total misfit. We all know or have known people like Ignatius, and there are pieces of him reflected in everyone of us. Ignatius teaches us that our failure to fit in all of the time is actually a grace, and we should let it remind us that we do not belong to this world, but to another world far greater.

Read an excerpt

Copyright ©2004 John Tintera

A Confederacy of Dunces
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