Monday, February 04, 2008

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole

The Book: John Kennedy Toole, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. Grove Press paperback reprint, 1981 (third printing). Good condition; cover is badly creased, torn at spine, pages are age-browned. Owner's signature on inside of front cover; resale price ($1.75) in pencil on front flyleaf.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1990 (best guess, this copy)

It's Mardi Gras season, so here's the ultimate New Orleans novel. I think I bought this copy, used, from Second Story Books; it replaced one I had borrowed from a friend and kept much too long.

The story behind this book is almost as well known as the novel itself: John Kennedy Toole was a strange, lonely young man who killed himself in 1969. His mother brought this manuscript to Walker Percy when he was teaching at Loyola in 1976. Despite his misgivings, Percy read the book and was dazzled.

Percy describes the book's protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, as "a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one." Ignatius lives with his long-suffering, hard-drinking mother, who puts up with his idleness until he causes a car accident that Mrs. Reilly has to pay for. She insists that Ignatius get a job -- and he proceeds to get a series of them, wreaking havoc throughout New Orleans as he does.

Ignatius is such an iconic character that at least half a dozen actors have sought to develop the book into a movie, including John Belushi, John Candy, Stephen Fry (what a great Ignatius he'd have made), and (most recently) Will Ferrell. The movie version still hasn't been made, and it's possible that the book isn't really filmable; too many characters, too many subplots. I'd like to see John Waters take a crack at it.

The New Orleans Toole describes was gone even before Katrina, but the book feels timeless, and surely that New Orleans survives in some fashion.

As I flip through this copy, I find a remarkable thing, which must surely have been in the book when I bought it: a holy card with a prayer for the canonization of Father Francis Xavier Seelos, C.Ss.R., who died of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1867. The date on the card is 1962; I don't know whether Father Seelos has been canonized. I don't know where this card came from, or why it's in the book. But I'm going to leave it there, because it seems peculiarly appropriate to serve as a bookmark for A Confederacy of Dunces.

6 comments:

Ed Lamb said...

Hated, HATed, HATED this book. Every single pussilanimous page may as well have been coated in acid for how much I wanted to throw it down and never have to pick it up again.

Still, I forced myself to read "Confederacy" during the early part of 2007. I had to finish it just so I could feel qualified to tell everyone how much it blew donkeys. Every single character is a charicature of pure repulsion, except for the poor stripper, who is only sympathetic because her naivette is genuine and mocked instead of anufactured and held up for praise and emulation.

Every single supposedly comic situation is soul-crushingly sad. Every single gas-baggy declamation of Ignatius is an assult of assbaggery. That may have been what readers were supposed to find amusing, but the effect it had on me was to make me keep saying, "STFU already!"

I'm abusing the comment feature, for which I apologize. Kina. I will wrap up here with my most heartfelt plea to everyone: Stop reading this book. Stop recommending this book. Burn whatever copies you find, and shout down the book's fans.

-- Ed

P.S. Same goes for "Catcher in the Rye."

AnswerGirl said...

Aw, you just felt uncomfortable because you recognize too much of yourself in Ignatius. He's _supposed_ to be insufferable. How could you not love Patrolman Mancuso? Or Mrs. Reilly?

I agree with you about "Catcher in the Rye," though.

Ed Lamb said...

A slur. I invoke the soul of Foghorn Leghorn in sayin, "You wound me, madam."

I thought a lot about whether Ignatius reminded me too much of me while I was forcing my way through "Confederacy." And I came to the very obvious conclusion that while I may be single, midle-aged, overweight, unsuited for honest work, misanthropic, solipsitic, and occasionally supercillious, I am neither willfully blind to these facts and failings.

Plus, I tell jokes. IJR never told jokes. He wouldn't know how.

No, I don't see enough of myself in Ignatius to make that the reason I hate this book. I hate "Confederacy" because it is by design and execution hateful if you look even a micrometer beneath the slapstick and ribaldry.

Ed Lamb said...

Typo by way of overheated typing:

That one sentence should ed "...neitherly willingly blind to these facts and failings nor committed to using them as my shield against actually enjoying life and its other habitues every now and then."

AnswerGirl said...

I did not mean to insult you -- I see a lot of Ignatius in my own self. I agree that it is an angry book, but I don't see it as mean-spirited.

Except maybe the stuff about Mrs. Levy and Miss Trixie. That's pretty mean.

John fitness trainers Austin said...

COD - My favorite book of all time. I understand there is a love hate thing with this book. As one who lived much of my life in New Orleans I find the sterotypes spot on. Things occur in New Orleans you just don't see anywhere else. I have seen elderly women in the grocery store wearing slippers and a bathrope totally unaware that it might be inappropriate. These women would fit write in the novel.