A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
Barrett Whitener read the green deerstalker cap off the audiobook edition of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which enabled me to finish a book I had started months earlier and misplaced amid the confusion of two overnight bags, a briefcase, a laptop bag, and a tote bag. I am glad I had Whitener's voice to bring to life the dialects and voices of all the characters in this book, published over a decade after its author's self-inflicted death by carbon monoxide poisoning. The story behind this novel is most tragic; indeed, it is almost a miracle that it was ever published, thanks in part to the persistence of the author's mother and the support of author Walker Percy. Yet the book itself is a comic masterpiece, a novel that makes you squirm and laugh in equal proportions. It populates New Orleans, U.S.A. with a cast of characters loopy enough to be worthy of its title, and sets them loose in a complex, sprawling farce that pokes fun at the absurdities of life among the idle rich, the idle poor, cops, crooks, blacks, whites, leftists, right-wingers, sexual deviants, and many other types whose struggles give the lie to the name "the Big Easy."
At the center of these struggling masses of characters is one whose oddities, listed in order, would make a description too long for this poor review. His name is Ignatius J. Reilly and, in spite of holding a master's degree, he has no job and he lives with his mother. Flatulent, obese, tortured by crippling insecurities and yet difficult to pity because of his readiness to exploit those who pity him, Ignatius would like of all things to be left alone in his filthy bedroom to scribble incoherent diatribes in his collection of Big Chief notebooks. But when his tippling mother finds herself liable for damages in a car accident, she forces him to seek gainful employment. And so he begins to carom about the city like a well-padded billiard ball, irrevocably altering the course of everybody he collides with.
Ignatius tries a filing job at a factory that makes pants. He moves from there to a career as a hot dog vendor. Wittingly or unwittingly, he also gets caught up in a couple of short-lived political movements, an illegal pornography ring, an unhappily married socialite's benevolent projects, a massive lawsuit, an undercover police investigation, and the collapse of a popular professor's academic career. As ineffectual as Reilly seems to be when it comes to achieving his own goals, he proves amazingly effective as an agent of chaos and ruin wherever he goes, whatever he tries. And in his career of destruction he always finds reliable support in the fresh and unique daftness of each person he meets.
Whether Ignatius Reilly is a true original or a typical specimen, taken from a typical sample of 1960s New Orleans culture, is now for us to discuss. Alas, we will get no help from the author on this question. One could, to a disturbing degree, read Toole as a prophet of things to come throughout this country. But it would probably be ridiculous to do that while, at the same time, enjoying the bold, vivid, often grotesque strokes of this portrait of our nation's most colorful city in the midst of what might have been its most colorful era. The contradictions and compromises within its central character might be, in a sense, Toole's portrait of the city itself: a swollen, smelly, loud, outrageous life form; charismatic yet offensive, cultured yet coarse, overwhelmed by its own sense of history; helpless to escape its inertia on the one hand and to check its momentum on the other. And though each member of the book's ensemble cast seems unchangeable in his or her craziness, all their lives do indeed change on contact with Ignatius—who himself, the most seemingly changeless of all, finally makes the big change the whole book has been building toward. We can never know whether he has escaped from one craziness to another, or from the fate of one considered crazy to something better. But if you're like me, you'll giggle to think of the possibilities, long after the book has ended.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 16+
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