John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was one of those classic books that had been on my radar for a while, but for some reason I never received the proverbial kick up the backside that I needed to make me choose that title before any others on my massive to-read list. The kick I’d been subconsciously waiting for came earlier this year when one of my greatest inspirations, Sir Billy Connolly revealed that A Confederacy of Dunces was his favourite book as part of his Made in Scotland documentary. If the book was good enough to earn such high praise from the Big Yin, I knew I had to grab a copy post-haste.
A Confederacy of Dunces is a cult classic American humour novel by John Kennedy Toole, although first written in 1963 it didn’t see print until 1980 following the efforts of Toole’s mother to get it published after the author took his own life. Despite its unorthodox and tragic route onto the world’s bookshelves, the novel is a rib-tickling romp that leaves the reader feeling a million miles from melancholy.
The book tells the story of one Ignatius J Riley, a hilariously pretentious, morbidly obese, highly educated, bone-idle moustachioed man-child with delusions of grandeur and a temperamental pyloric valve. Despite his natural intellect and inflated self-importance he remains blissfully unemployed, living with his mother in a blue-collar New Orleans neighbourhood populated by kooky residents. Ignatius is a walking ball of contradictions, he complains bitterly about the 20th Century’s lack of taste and decency yet he’s as flatulent as a Jersey cow. He has the ego of a Greek god but the dress sense of a vagrant; his everyday attire consisting exclusively of a baggy flannel nightshirt and a green hunting cap that he takes off so rarely, it might as well be stapled to his head. He is forever decrying the moral impurity of the motion picture industry, but goes to the cinema on a weekly basis. It is these stringently held beliefs and unconscious hypocrisies that inspire him to write. Our pompously puritanical protagonist spends most of his time locked in his bedroom penning a comprehensive critique of the modern age, scribbling frantically about anything that offends his medieval ideals.
Some of the novel’s funniest passages are excerpts from Ignatius’s vitriolic musings in which he rants at length about his run-ins with some of the wildest and wackiest people in New Orleans. These oddball adversaries include local cop Patrolman Mancuso, the staff at The Night of Joy, a nearby bar that Ignatius brands “a den of vice and iniquity” and his neighbour Miss Annie, a nosy older woman who doesn’t appreciate his nocturnal trumpet playing. Mr Reilly would be quite happy to remain at home composing his scornfully highfalutin manuscript for the rest of his days but after he accidentally incurs a hefty debt, his mother forces him to get a job.
The book then follows Ignatius on his comically tempestuous forays into the working world. His first experience of gainful employment comes at the offices of the Levy Pants Company, a local firm that has catered for the trouser-related needs of New Orleans folk for generations. Try as he might Ignatius simply isn’t cut out for life as a humble clerk and soon unleashes his own unique brand of chaos on his colleagues and superiors. After placing himself at the epicentre of an industrial up-rising Ignatius parts ways with Levy Pants and becomes a hot-dog salesman. He proudly pushes his Paradise Vendors cart all over the city, merrily flogging frankfurters as he goes but things soon turn sour when he is found to be eating more than he’s selling.
In Ignatius J Reilly, the author created one of the funniest, most unpleasant main characters in all of literature and his journey from slothful slob to working boy would be enough to fill a novel in its own right, but our man Reilly’s absurd antics are just one facet of this comedic yarn. Almost every character with whom Ignatius interacts throughout the novel have their own richly detailed backstory that runs concurrently with Ignatius’s.
There’s Ignatius’s mother Irene, an anxious liquor-quaffing widow whose disappointment in her offspring is made sadly apparent. Patrolman Mancuso, a lawman with a penchant for naff disguises who is Ignatius’s sworn enemy and Irene’s bowling partner. Other characters who play essential roles in the book’s vast interlinking plot include, Jones the supercool, highly astute cleaner come doorman at the Night of Joy, his coldhearted boss Lana Lee and many more besides.
Another vital and often hilarious vein of storyline that runs throughout the novel is Ignatius’s correspondence with his pen pal and on/off love interest Myrna Minkoff. Myrna is a fiercely intellectual and rebellious New York beatnik who is Ignatius’s academic equal. Ignatius holds Myrna in high regard, but he fears her social and sexual freedoms worrying that she will rob him of his closely guarded virginity.
A Confederacy of Dunces is a colossal work of comic fiction, bursting at the margins with absurd humour and caustic wit. John Kennedy Toole’s storytelling and exquisitely crafted imagery is wonderful, his sentences like brushstrokes that vividly paint each raucous character inside the reader’s head. I’ve read a lot of books in my time, but never have I known flatulence be described in so many varied and poetic ways. Toole’s comic timing and gift for characterisation is undeniable, but his plotting and story structure is far from seamless.
In any given chapter the story can flit from a standard third person narrative focusing on Ignatius to an extract from his handwritten ramblings, then dart off into another third person sequence in The Night of Joy before going back to Ignatius and a transcript of a letter from Myrna. This scatter-brained pacing sometimes proved discombobulating and would certainly be a turnoff to some readers.
Another thing that struck me as I read was the frequent sprinkling of un-PC language and terminology that looks quite shocking through contemporary eyes. However I realise all books are products of the times they were written in and it would be unfair to condemn a 20th Century work by 21st Century standards.
No matter how erratic and multifaceted its narrative may be, A Confederacy of Dunces is a very enjoyable novel full of memorable characters who stay with you long after the covers close.