A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

Book #291

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

This is the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner, sadly awarded twelve years after the author’s death.  Toole set his novel in 1960s New Orleans and the tone of the language and commentary reflect this. He created a cast of bizarre and colourful characters.  They are:

Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist, medievalist, crazy man;  Irene Reilly, Ignatius’ mother with bottle red hair and a muscatel in the oven;  Angelo Mancuso, policeman and master of many, ludicrous, disguises; Santa Battaglia, Mancuso’s aunt and Irene’s new found best friend; Myrna Minkoff, Reilly’s offbeat adversary and “girlfriend”, mostly seen from a distance; Gus Levy, owner of Levy Pants and downtrodden husband; Lana Lee, owner of Night of Joy and part-time purveyor of photographic articles; Jones, the coloured “vagran” and janitor at Night of Joy; Mr Clyde, owner of Paradise Vendors (hotdog vendors) and a large pointed metal fork; Dorian Greene, rake about town (gay) and buyer of Irene’s hat; Claude Robichaux, an old man arrested by Mancuso and later to become the beau of Irene.  Claude is also ever so slightly obsessed with “comuniss”.  George, a juvenile delinquent and partner in crime with Lana Lee; Darlene, an erstwhile dancer at Night of Joy and owner of a parrot; Miss Trixie, the bewildered, ancient accountant at Levy Pants, personal project of Mrs Levy and the fall-guy.  That is quite a few people to keep track of as their stories weave together.

The whole sorry, messy and funny story begins when Patrolman Mancuso tries to arrest Ignatius while he is waiting outside a department store for his mother.  This is not unsurprising when you read the description of Ignatius as he waits.

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.  The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once.  Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.

Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly.  The hunting cap prevented head colds.  The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion.  Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm stale air that soothed Ignatius.  The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar.  The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.

Mother and son bamboozle Mancuso with the help of the crowd and especially Mr Robichaux (as we find out later in the book).
They escape and hide for some time in the Night of Joy club in the French Quarter where they meet Dorian, Darlene and Lana.  Irene gets tipsy & crashes the car when they try to return home.  The accident, where she knocks down a wrought iron balcony, is the catalyst for the ensuing farce of Ignatius finding work and systematically destroying his employers.

Ignatius is both laughable and pitiable.  I found myself wanting to hit him and laugh at him, alternately.  He is such an appalling character that it isn’t possible to actually like him.  Yet he is so appallingly naïve and stupid that you cannot truly dislike him either.

He is perhaps an advertisement for the old saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, for that seems to be his problem.  He lives his own “rich inner life” guided by his Mediaeval scholarship, which naturally has very little to do with the real world in the middle of the twentieth century.  He is critical of everyone and everything, and he has a psychological skin as thick as a rhinoceros.  In no way does he accept his ineptitude and poor behavior as being responsible for any of the calamities that befall those around him or himself.

We follow him through his first job, at Levy Pants, where instead of attending to the filing as requested, he tries to instigate an uprising of the coloured factory workers against the “office”.  There is never any question of success.
He then scrapes the bottom of the barrel when he takes on the job of street vendor of weenies.  He is excessively lazy and skives off at every opportunity, mostly to watch matinee movies.  In this he is aided and abetted by George, in exchange for the use of his bun compartment as storage for dubious photographs.  He eats as much of his product as he sells and brings home an ever-decreasing amount of money to help out his “momma”.

The final straw for his exasperated mother comes when he tries to organise a political party around Dorian, the “deviant”, and his cohort.  He is so grotesque that all hell breaks loose at the kickoff rally (party) and he is tossed out by three rather butch and brutal women.  This leads him to the Night of Joy where the final indignity of fainting in front of an oncoming car occurs.  While lying in a heap on the ground he is photographed and the ensuing image is published in the newspaper.  His mother finally hits bottom.

Without fail I enjoyed this book.  It got a little hard towards the last third, simply because I knew that he was going to repeat the arrogant mistakes of earlier cycles, and I was simply marking time waiting to find out the ultimate outcome of all Ignatius’ ridiculous behaviour.

I can quite easily see how this work won a Pulitzer, even without the cultural knowledge of New Orleans society and the US of the early 1960s.  There will have been jokes that sailed right across my head, but equally my knowledge is sufficient to get many others.  Then, of course, there was all of the very international slapstick bungling that cannot be missed unless you prefer your humour to be highbrow.  Personally I view myself as uni-brow – high or low, I’m happy as long as it is funny or witty or clever.  A mix suits me just fine.

By way of example, I have chosen a passage to help give you a flavour of some of the pointy commentary and the pompous character of Ignatius.

He remembers his first meeting with Myrna, and recounts it thus,

While I was desultorily attending graduate school, I met in the coffee shop one day a Miss Myrna Minkoff, a young undergraduate, a loud, offensive maiden from the Bronx.  This expert from the universe of the Grand Concourse was attracted to my table at which I was holding court by the singularity and magnetism of my being.  As the magnificence and originality of my worldview became explicit through conversation, the Minkoff minx began attacking me on all levels, even kicking me under the table rather vigorously at one point.  I both fascinated and confused her; in short, I was too much for her.  The parochialism of the ghettoes of Gotham had not prepared her for the uniqueness of Your Working Boy.  Myrna, you see, believed that all humans living south and west of the Hudson River were illiterate cowboys or – even worse – White Protestants, a class of humans who as a group specialized in ignorance, cruelty, and torture. (I don’t wish to especially defend White Protestants; I am not too fond of them myself.)

As you can see he is completely delusional about himself.  Fortunately he is well matched in Myrna.  Their swordplay through letter is the key trigger for his ridiculous schemes and constant undoing.

I recommend this if you want a laugh with a lot of barbs attached.  If you are not sensitive about issues around books still published when black Americans are referred to as “colored” or “Negroes” or occasionally “jig”; and can see it for what it is, then I think you will enjoy this.  The same applies to anyone with sensitivities around the gay community, where terms like “deviant” are used.

I don’t believe that the author is intending to slur communities; he is representing the way of thought and speech of a particular place and time.  I did not find it offensive, but others may.   In fact, the “white” folk of this story come off as the intended targets of the humour more than anyone.  They are poked fun at in myriad ways.  If you have read or choose to read this, I’d like to hear what you think about it.

A solid four stars from me.

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3 thoughts on “A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

  1. Beth Parks Aronson March 22, 2012 / 4:25 pm

    I really loved this book I read it last year and was just delighted by it. I definitely didn’t think the book was bigoted, but that the author was representing some people with biased attitudes. I wish he had lived to enjoy the appreciation his book has received and to write more. I’m deeply grateful that his mom worked to get this book to us!

    • Ms Oh Waily March 25, 2012 / 8:20 am

      When I read other reviews online I was very surprised to see that this book seems to be very divisive. People seem to love it or hate it. I have difficulty seeing what there is to hate. It may not be to someone’s taste in humour, but to dislike it as strongly as some seem to is a puzzle to me.
      I found myself laughing (or sniggering) out loud. I thought the caricature of characters was well done. A bit over the top (maybe) but not to excess. It is farce and humour, after all. 🙂

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