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Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces

John Kennedy Toole's life was short and sad, involving alienation, professional disappointment, and finally mental illness. After he committed suicide, his mother spent five years trying to get his manuscript published before she got the attention of an author, who spent another three years getting it actually published, whereupon it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (of course).

Given this background, A Confederacy of Dunces is not what many would expect, and that may be why it took so long to get it out there. It is an absurdist comic masterpiece, filled with all manner of oddball, pathetic, or just plain weird characters and lots of slapstick humor and broad satire, with little in the way of actual plot. Toole has been praised for his depiction of New Orleans and its subcultures, not to mention the dialects he faithfully records, and while I cannot opine on the accuracy of the accents, I wholeheartedly agree that he wrote a fantastically vivid description of the city and its people (although I sometimes wonder where all the normal, competent people are hiding). While Toole's satire is sharp, it is never mean-spirited, and you do end up rooting for the various characters (well some of them, the ones who have a fundamental decency in them).

The centerpiece, of course, is Ignatius J. Reilly, the "hero" of the book. He is a man in his 30s, overweight, over-educated, unemployed, living with his long-suffering mother, absolutely convinced of his own superiority and that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. My suspicions grew as I read the novel, until I finally reached this piece of advice Reilly gives another:
Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books. . . . I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he's found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.
That clinched it -- Reilly is Comic Book Guy. A puritanical, more-Catholic-than-the-Pope, proto-Comic Book Guy (the book is set in the early sixties, and I can just imagine what Reilly would have had to say about Vatican II). And like Jeff Albertson, Reilly is a real ass, alternately horrid and pathetic. He has nothing but contempt for everyone around him. He has grandiose schemes but refuses to take any responsibility for their disastrous (and hilarious) consequences. He mistreats his mother, and when she stands up for herself he guilts her into backing down (one of the delights of the book is seeing Mrs. Reilly ever so slowly grow a spine). And yet, in just one heart-breaking paragraph towards the end of the book, Toole leaves you truly sympathizing with Reilly and wanting him to triumph over those that mock and bully him. It is such a small yet profound moment and a testament to Toole's skills and sensitivity, and to the humanity at the core of the novel. Fittingly, the book ends with the tiny possibility that maybe, just maybe, Reilly and his girlfriend/nemesis Myrna can smoothe each other's worst traits.

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