Thursday, July 01, 2010

From Sparrow: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole
Penguin Modern Classics (2000)
It's pretty sweet when an author can find an introductory quote as gnarly and kick-ass as this one that John Kennedy Toole used to begin his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces:

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.Jonathan Swift -- "Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting"

To use the great 18th century satirist and social commentator's words to introduce a novel so brilliantly satirical and pointedly critical of society was a stroke of genius that aptly foreshadows the upcoming romp with a singular character, Ignatius J. Reilly, and a whole host of seedy and undesirable cohorts.

For me, the test of a novel is in the characters. Plots and themes and settings mean nothing at all when paired with sub-par, lifeless creations. If a protagonist (or antagonist) stays with me, haunts me, forces me to consider his or her future long after I've turned the book's last page, then the author has used my time well. Ignatius Reilly was drawn in such a way by Toole that I could see him, hear him, and even smell him as he burped and belched his way through the pages, constantly struggling both with his recalcitrant valve and with every person who had the misfortune to cross his path. This was a worthwhile read, indeed.

Confederacy is set in New Orleans in the early 1960's. Ignatius is a thirty-year-old college graduate who lives with his widowed mother in reduced circumstances. He relishes their fringe status in society and whiles away his days scribbling grandiosities on Big Chief yellow tablets, wolfing down cakes, and drinking Dr. Nuts. His mother's opinion of him fluctuates between reverence and fear. Then, one day, their lives change forever when his mother crashes her car into a building. All of a sudden, Ignatius's lifestyle is put into jeopardy by dire financial straits, as his mother pledges to pay the property owner's damages in installments. Irene Reilly finds her backbone and insists that Ignatius find gainful employment and help her pay off the accident debt. The story is, therefore, the tale of what happens when an idiosyncratic crank with the sensibilities of medieval Europe is thrown into the vat of humanity that bubbles outside the realm of his particular Weltanshauung.

Toole parades a varied cast of characters before the reader. From the depths of New Orleans underworld, to the struggles of lower-middle class workers and retirees, to a terse marriage of the idle rich, Toole astounded me by his ability to give each creation a distinct history and personality and room to shine. Each individual introduced plays a vital part in the progression and denouement of the plot. No one is inconsequential or an accident. The artistry here is such that, without the reader's becoming aware, the parts played fit perfectly and the end is seamless, absurd and utterly, ironically logical. Given these characters and these situations, the end becomes a fait accompli that not only takes the reader by surprise, but leaves him nodding his head and saying, "Of course." To create that kind of inevitability without falling into triteness is one of the novel's great accomplishments.

Perhaps the novelist's greatest accomplishment, though, is Ignatius himself. His character is so polarizing that every reader must have one of three reactions: they find him completely abhorrent; they find him riotously amusing; they find him intriguingly dumbfounding. My reaction was the latter. In fact, I find him much funnier in retrospect than I did in the actual reading, because he is so unlike anyone I'd ever seen created in fiction before. Again, though, his character is so completely developed that, once you accustom yourself to his unique worldview, his actions and conversation are entirely consistent. What an amazing act of writing! To imagine such a peculiar individual so entirely that he becomes a real, if unsettling, person is Toole's literary legacy.

It is difficult to say much more about this novel without rubbing away some of the magic of that first read. If you let yourself be swept up into this world, if you accept the author's terms and allow yourself to be carried along on the ride, I think you'll enjoy it. There is a lot in there that struck me as prescient, considering that Toole wrote this in the early 1960's. It was fun and fascinating, but not fluffy. There are a lot of prickles and irritations, but they made the journey more fulfilling for me. It struck me that this novel is rather moral. The struggle between good and evil is narrated in a less-dramatic form than we would have seen in a novel written a hundred years previously, because, even in the 1960's, those lines were beginning to blur. Ignatius, in particular, is morally ambiguous, but the author is not. The conclusions of the characters' stories are satisfying, because the deserving find reward and the undeserving find punishment. This quirky tale will make you mourn the author's early death and limited output.

John Kennedy Toole must have been surrounded by dunces his entire life, for this work truly reveals a work of genius.

Note: If you have read the book, do you agree with me that Ignatius's favorite actress is Doris Day, with the circus-musical's being Billy Rose's Jumbo and the sophisticated comedy's being That Touch of Mink?

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