“That’s the point of book groups, isn’t it? To make you read something you wouldn’t normally.” When I hear those words at book group, it usually comes after everyone has declared that they loathed the book in question. But sometimes something can come out of nowhere and be a total joy. Well, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole wasn’t a *total* joy, but it was near enough.
Ignatius J. Reilly is the biggest character of the book, in every sense of the word – he dominates the narrative, but his gargantuan size, fearsome dialogue, and sense of self-worth means he dominates more or less everything else too. He is a deliberately unattractive character – obese, flatulent, ‘full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chips.’ He is disgusting – and alarm bells were going off with me. I am a bit sensitive to these sorts of things. I could do without a character whose bodily functions are so uncontrolled, and whose preoccupation with his ‘valve’ is mentioned on more or less every page. To be honest, this was the aspect of the novel I could have done without even when I’d realised I loved the book – but it sets the scene for a completely over-the-top character.
Ignatius lives with his long-suffering widowed mother, Irene Reilly. I loved her. She mostly ignores Ignatius’ intellectual ramblings, and simply implores him to behave and get a job. It is a delight to read their dialogue together – while he brings Boethius and Marx and whoever else into conversation, she’ll reply about a cream cake and the need for a bottle of wine.
In an amazing opening scene, Ignatius is apprehended by a policeman, for looking suspicious. Somehow this is the catalyst for all manner of events – an old man with a Communist-obsession enters their life, as does the hapless policeman, Angelo Mancuso – who spends the rest of the novel being forced by his boss to don various costumes. Surreal. And then Mrs. Reilly accidentally drives her car into someones property, and gets the bill for it… meaning Ignatius has to get work. Ignatius explains to his mother how difficult he found it working at the New Orleans Public Library, since they employers ‘sensed in him a denial of their values’. She replies:
‘But, Ignatius, that was the only time you worked since you got out of college, and you was only there for two weeks.’
‘That is exactly what I mean,’ Ignatius replied, aiming a paper ball at the bowl of the milk glass chandelier.
‘All you did was paste them little slips in the books.’
‘Yes, but I had my own aesthetic about pasting those slips. On some days I could only paste in three or four slips and at the same time feel satisfied with the quality of my work. The library authorities resented my integrity about the whole thing.’
Nevertheless, he starts off working for Levy Pants, ‘filing’ (for which read: throwing all the files into the bin, and trying to organise a factory uprising – one of the best scenes in the book, which had me laughing aloud on the train.) The office brings some more wonderful characters to the narrative, my favourite being Miss Trixie – an 80 year old who spends her workdays sleeping at her desk, forbidden from retiring by the interfering of Mr. Levy’s failed-psychologist wife.
And the plot winds on and on, incorporating Ignatius’ job as a hotdog-salesman; the efforts of a seedy club to bring in those customers who want to see a bird pulling a dress off a Southern belle; the flamboyant party of those in the ‘French quarter’; Mancuso being stationed in a toilet… it gets increasingly bizarre, but is structured brilliantly by Toole – plotlines overlap and intertwine, and the whole thing relies heavily upon coincidence – but that’s part of the delight.
But far and away the most delightful aspect of A Confederacy of Dunces is the language. It reminded me quite a bit of Evelyn Waugh, more especially Put Out More Flags and Decline and Fall. That is to say, selfish characters talking bombastically – hilarious put-downs or exaggerated philosophical ponderings. Here’s a bit that made me laugh. Mrs. Reilly ends up dating the old man with the fear of the communiss [sic] and leaves a pamphlet for Ignatius to read:
‘Yes, I saw one of those pamphlets in the hall this afternoon. You either dropped it there on purpose so that I could benefit from its message or you tossed it there accidentally during your regular afternoon wine orgy in the belief that it was a particularly elephantine bit of confetti. I imagine that your eyes have some trouble focusing at about two in the afternoon.’
He also starts a letter ‘Beloved Myrna. I have received your offensive communication. Do you seriously think that I am interested in your tawdry encounters with such sub-humans as folksingers?’ Genius. Each character has their verbal tics, which come back time and again (in the way that Dickens’ wonderful characters have their iterated phrases) – so that even Irene Reilly’s ‘honey’ and ‘precious’ could have me laughing; or Lana’s ‘investment’. And I haven’t even told you who Lana is. A Confederacy of Dunces is so rich in characters.
This is all a million miles away from the Provincial Lady or Jane Austen, or the usual stables of my literary loves. But it isn’t that far from the sort of silly things I say with my friends, especially my friend Clare – we talk nonsense to one another, hyperbolically, and teasingly. Not with Ignatius’ bile, I hope, but… I still find it hilarious, even if my views are (of course) far from being his. John Kennedy Toole, presumably, does not envision Ignatius as some sort of anti-hero – he must be being held up for pillory. Or rather you don’t stop to evaluate who is right or wrong, because you’re being swept along on a tidal wave of the bombastic, absurd, and exaggerated.
I can understand if this review doesn’t appeal. I don’t think there is anything I could have read which would persuade me that I’d enjoy A Confederacy of Dunces – except for the novel itself. It could easily have been dreadful, and if I were the author I’d have toned down a few of the more bodily elements, but I think it is a work of extraordinary energy, exaggeration, and creativity. Some people at book group were arguing that it showed genuine insight too – perhaps it did; I didn’t really want to know. I’m much happier taking the novel as a breathless, mad tour de force, writ large.
There is a sad story behind it. Toole finished writing the novel in the 1960s, and killed himself in 1969, partly because he couldn’t find a publisher for it. Only his mother’s perseverance and belief in him led to its eventual publication. She eventually persuaded author and college instructor Walker Percy to read it. He writes in the Preface: There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.
Thus, in my own humbler way, did I approach A Confederacy of Dunces, certain – even determined – that I would hate it. And my reaction ended up being precisely the same.