Book review: A Confederacy of Dunces
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Highly recommended.
He’s egotistical, erudite, ejaculatory (literally), and explosive. He’s “emptily verbose” (Merriam-Webster’s definition number 3 for “gassy”). He’s also that — gassy, a man with a flux. He’s Ignatius J. Reilly, a monster of a man with a master’s degree, a faulty pyloric valve, a love for Boethius and The Consolation of Philosophy, a hatred for modern life, a passion against anything to do with sex (at least sex involving a second person), and a distinctly lower-class New Orleans lifestyle. He’s also a man about whom his own pet phrase could apply: “Do I believe what I am seeing?”
Set in the New Orleans of the 1960s, A Confederacy of Dunces begins with an incident with an overzealously inept policeman that leads Ignatius, one of the most unforgettable characters of American fiction, into a world with which he is unfamiliar and ill-equipped-work. As a result, he encounters a cornucopia of characters — from the cynical female owner of the laughably named “Night of Joy” to the wizened owner of the equally ill-named “Paradise Hotdogs” — who are as unforgettable as Our Hero. The most memorable is undoubtedly the generically named Jones, who, behind his dark glasses and his cloud of cigarette smoke, manages to see the world, its people, and the ironies of situation all too clearly. There are also Ignatius’s wine-loving mother, his irascible neighbor, and “Myrna Minx” — the closest Ignatius has ever had to a girlfriend.
Ignatius, taken away from his magnum opus (written on a series of Big Chief tablets strewn everywhere in his room in his mother’s house) and the modern movies he so likes to deride, touts the value of The Consolation of Philosophy and bemoans the work of Fortuna while attempting to leave nothing to chance. To feed his laziness and lack of desire to work, he works hard at being sly, devious, and manipulative. He carefully plans and plots his efforts from the perspective of a man who has little perception of human nature; the results are hilariously unexpected — the whims of Fortuna. In the end, Ignatius’s life, such as it is, will never be the same thanks to his forced interaction with the outside world.
A Confederacy of Dunces will make you laugh out loud and, at the same time, you will probably detect an undertone of sadness, even hopelessness. As Walker Percy notes in his introduction, perhaps this is due to the knowledge that author Toole committed suicide. But perhaps it is equally due to the absurdity of modern life that the adventures of the larger-than-life Ignatius reveal at every turn.
2 June 2002
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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