Here is another review of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel I found in my dusty archives.

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES – by John Kennedy Toole  (Posthumously published in 1980)

A Confederacy of Dunces

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The laugh out loud novel has always been a thing of mystery to me. Sure, there are funny books (although not as many as people claim) but if you believe all you read you’d think the sight of someone doubled up in blissful agony over a work of fiction would be a regular sight on public transport. A mild hyperventilating wheeze or discreet titter (disguised as one might a burp) I can relate to but not the public guffaw.

Sure, there are funny books but A Confederacy of Dunces is certainly not one of them. Somebody said you’ve got to hear it read in an American voice and recognise the depiction of the seedy lowlife of New Orleans. I remain unconvinced that a Stateside lilt or such background knowledge would enhance its appeal. Surely one of the functions of literature is to transport you to unfamiliar locations. If you need to know the place to understand the references it doesn’t exactly give a novel wide appeal. It would become a ‘local’ book for ‘local’ people.

If you like your (anti) heroes to be lazy, overweight, unhygienic, sexually repressed, badly dressed,  then Ignatius J Reilly is your man. To find him, as some have, to be a hilarious comic creation you have to recognise his deplorable condition as symbolic of some deeper malaise, perhaps a reflection of a society which “had once been dedicated to the soul [but] is now dedicated to the sale“.

John Kennedy Toole (1937- 1969)

But I found it hard to see him as anything more than a “big fat man dressed funny“. He wears a hunting hat with heavy check shirt, a sartorial inelegance that is never explained. He ‘”graduated smart”  but now  rants nonsensically about the decline of  “theological or geometrical standards”. He masturbates over the memory of a dead pet dog and is taunted for this and other sexual deficiencies by his plain speaking ex, Myrna Mincoff, who advocates “a good explosive orgasm ” as a cure. He is slothful and treats his mother like dirt. In short, he is grotesque but not comically so.

Perhaps Toole had in mind that he be seen as an eccentric visionary. The novel, after all,  takes its title from a quote from an essay 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”.  If Ignatius is meant to be the ‘genius’, it’s hard to fathom the precise nature of his brilliance. He declares that he is “not particularly anxious to mingle” because he wishes to “stay as an observer of the corruption” but a principled outsider does not a genius make and simply because his world view doesn’t match that of prospective employers or academics doesn’t justify his obnoxious behaviour.

The piling on of quirky detail from his yellowy blue eyes to his Mickey Mouse watch through to his “gargantuan rump” and “expansive nostrils” provide ample evidence of Ignatius’ strangeness but you never really get beyond his superficial oddity.

The trauma of the working life is represented through Ignatius’ experiences as a clerk at a decrepit clothes manufacturers (‘Levy Pants’) and as a seller of hot-dogs (‘Paradise Vendors’). Both confirm his negativity towards anything remotely resembling gainful employment. His spirited mother sees him as a waster with a “heart of ice” and a “head of rock”  and its hard to argue with this assessment.

There is potential for comic distraction through an over vigilant Patrolman Angelo Mancuso condemned to work undercover in absurd disguises. There is also promise in the jive talking negro Jones who becomes a “captive porter” and in the bar blonde and would be exotic Darlene who he befriends at the sleazy ‘Night of Joy Bar’ managed by Lana Lee. But there’s not enough zest or variety to the writing to make any of these characters convincing or humorous.

Ignatious is described as “writing some foolishness nobody never gonna feel like reading” and Toole committed suicide at the age of 32 believing this was also his fate. Belated plaudits for this novel came too late but this sad footnote shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is a novel lacking in warmth or depth.

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