A Confederacy of Dunces
Author: John Kennedy Toole
Winner: Pulitzer Prize, Literary Fiction, 1981
Original Publication: 1980
#291 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
A Confederacy of Dunces ought to be read based on the title alone. I guffawed on nearly every single page; so much so that my husband, who was reading a considerably duller novel, threatened to steal it from me like a bully.
Ignatius T. Reilly is a ‘love to hate him’ type of character. On the one hand, he is highly educated, bright, and…those might be the only two good things about him. He’s also morbidly obese, pompous, unemployed, socially inept, lazy, delusional, and lives with his mother. As completely insufferable as he is, however, you can’t help but laugh as he gets foiled at every turn.
Set in 1960’s New Orleans, Ignatius is a medievalist who is more or less befuddled with the modern world, and wastes no opportunity to complain about it. When he is accosted by the police as he is waiting for his mother outside Woolworth’s, it triggers a chain of events where during the course of evading the police, he and his mother hide in a strip club in the French Quarter, and she gets drunk and has a car accident which is more or less Ignatius’ fault. She forces him to get a job to help pay for the damages; an endeavor to which Ignatius will be the first to tell you he is ill-suited.
Enter an apathetic CEO and his ridiculous wife, a senile bookkeeper with a penchant for biting, a porn-peddling club owner, a stripper with a trained cockatoo, a disgruntled janitor, a bumbling cop and his peculiar Auntie, and a fork-wielding weenie salesman; a menagerie of characters each more absurdly eccentric than the last.
What I enjoyed in particular about this book is that none of the characters were heroes, unsung or otherwise. They were all as strange, troubled, hilarious, and faulty as real people are. The novel also doesn’t traffic in stereotypes. The cadence of the language is deliberately southern, but the novel avoids typical stereotypes of the south, and avoids stamping its characters with the typical affectations of the poor, the black, authority figures, etc. Each character is uniquely his or her own person. The ending is extremely well-constructed and comes together as beautifully as any I’ve read.
Fun Facts: The book was published 11 years after the author took his own life, when his mother found the manuscript and badgered Walker Percy, an author and Loyola University professor, into reading it. The title derives from the epigraph by Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
In short, I loved the book and would re-read it. It’s reminiscent of Christopher Moore’s novels or Monty Python, albeit better written and crafted. The character development is outstanding.
Bother if: You’re a fan of absurdist comedy and ambitious language.
Don’t bother if: You can’t see yourself finding such a horrendous protagonist endearing, or if you don’t enjoy the POV (point of view) shifting between characters.