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Book review: <i>Confederacy of Dunces</i> by John Kennedy Toole

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the cover of the book

If this was a stand-up comedian, it would be that transfixingly terrible lounge singer Andy Kaufman used to inhabit. Only better.


A photograph of a fat man, from the neck to ankles, slouched on a sofa, hand deep in a bucket of popcorn. It's part of some 'classic' re-issue set, I think. The odd thing is that, as I was reading it, my mind kept flashing back to a much better cover for the same book that I'd seen somewhere long before - a profile cartoon of a very fat man, red lumberjack shirt straining to cover his immense girth, an awful green hunting cap on his head, ear-flaps at half mast, stuffing his face with a hot dog. And, that said...


Ladies & gentlemen, I give you Ignatius J. Reilly. Thirty-something, huge in height and circumference, resident of New Orleans, cohabitator with his mother, educated, intelligent, lazy, writer of many great unpublished works, opinionated, self-aware yet massively deluded, hirsute, arrogant, easily outraged, unemployable, choleric, insulting and annoying to pretty much everyone he meets, and who suffers fools in a manner that makes Basil Fawlty look like a special needs carer. Yes I went there. And so would Ignatius. He swans around New Orleans, a town he's only ventured out of on one prior occasion, like a low-flying dirgible, knocking everyone nearby aside without the slightest guilt, shame or semblance of tact. His mother's ashamed of him, he gets fired on a monthly basis, and he thinks about labradors when he masturbates, which is often. He fills reams of journals with unpublishable dross about the downfall of society, which he thinks can only be arrested by a return to the medieval system of serfdom. He deliberately attends films which he knows he will hate in order to hurl voluminous abuse at the screen. He lies to his mother. He is completely absent of self-doubt, fear and guilt. In Reilly's mind, there is only one thing holding him back from glory, and that is the apparently unlimited supply of idiots around him. A confederacy of dunces, if you will. If they would only put him in the position of respect, power, and obeisance he so obviously deserves, the world would be a better place for all who dwell there. Self-belief is a powerful thing - is Reilly's powerful enough to shift the world to fit his straining girth?

The good

Weasels on a stick, what a strange and wondrous beast this book is. The author, O'Toole, committed suicide in the sixties, after the manuscript failed to find a publisher. The book was finally published, twenty years later, thanks to his mother. She never ceased to believe in its quality, and eventually managed to find a publisher who would read it from the smudged carbon paper it was typed out on. So, the fact that it's a never-to-be-repeated classic, which we're lucky to be able to read at all, is definitely a "good".

Most obviously, it's the character of Ignatius who sells the story. There's plot enough for a film, sure, but Confederacy is just as much a work of joyous, balls-out characterisation, based on sticking Ignatius into as many confronting situations as possible, throwing him a few weirdos off the New Orleans street, then watching him tear the lot down in a cacophony of verbal abuse, unintentional slapstick, self-righteous outrage, farcical misunderstanding, extremely bad luck and the fact that he quite often is, however deluded, the most intelligent person in the room. There's a reality here, too, just in case I'm making it sound a bit like an episode of The Young Ones or something. Ignatius is completely bizarre, but it's a giant gold star for O'Toole's literary skills that Reilly never feels any less plausible than several people you know, especially if you could (oh God) hear their innermost thoughts as they walk through the world. The most interesting people are a mass of contradictions, and so is Reilly. I won't bore you with another list, but I found the most interesting contrast to be that he manages to remain utterly, wholly deluded - he really thinks he is the humble, unrecognised potential saviour of a vice-ridden society - yet there is also an inherent part of his nature which is utterly honest about the world he sees; much more honest than most of us can bring ourselves to be. Of course, being Ignatius J Reilly, he combines these two aspects into the most obnoxious possible whole then bashes it over people's skulls at every opportunity.

O'Toole continually uses this (and many other) contradictory aspect of Reilly's character to surprise us, thus allowing us to get to know the man's subtleties and extremities while occasionally identifying with him - often begrudgingly, or at one remove - yet without ever finding him predictable or unbelievable. It's a bloody good trick if you can do it, and O'Toole does it very, very well, so well, in fact, that it's a little bit frightening. One begins to wonder how much he resembled the character in reality, and what his relationship with his mother was like. I can only hope the answers are "Not much at all," and, "Perfectly healthy, you pervert." So, much as we would hate to have to share so much as a bus seat with Ignatius J. Reilly, he grows further from caricature and grotesquery as the book progresses, until the character's verisimilitude and choleric personality infect us, and we witness...well, in my case, character traits of several of my friends, not to mention my own powerful (and powerfully abrasive) self-righteousness and consequent outrage - an anger at the world for refusing to stay passive but rather thwarting me at every turn, and supplying endless exasperation via the stupidity of others, particularly regarding their lack of appreciation for my invisible genius. I have also been known to watch things I know I'll hate largely in order to yell at the screen, e.g, Hmm, I don't know, pretty much the entire run of Dawson's Creek (to quote Billy Connolly: "It makes me feel so TALENTED!") On top of this, in the simplest terms, it's bloody hard to sell a book to a reader, never mind a publisher, which features an unsympathetic main character, and they don't come much less sympathetic than Ignatius. He is, as they say, unreconstructed. But books also don't get much more readable than this one. What a shame we'll never get discover what else O'Toole could do with his gift.

A Confederacy of Dunces is written in a style which is difficult to pin down, but always effective. There are moments which remind us that it's forty years old, but these are more to do with detail than prose, and, on the whole, Confederacy feels surprisingly fresh, or at least so unique as to be virtually timeless. O'Toole's evocation of the sleaze and grime of New Orleans is perfectly tuned - never overwhelming, and never cliched. His supporting cast are also fantastic - all created in an age long preceding Political Correctness, but never stereotypes, and never empty of empathetic qualities. Yes, OK, they're all pretty selfish, and there's not a pure-hearted soul among them (except perhaps the wimpy, put-upon policeman, son of Reilly's mother's friend, who is so ill-regarded by his colleagues that he spends most of the book cruising the streets of New Orleans in a variety of increasingly ridiculous "disguises," e.g. Santa suit, Abraham Lincoln outfit, gay sailor costume, etc). O'Toole allows us glimpses into the thoughts of the supporting characters when appropriate (the Negro janitor and hard-assed female bar manager are particularly impressive leaps of imagination), but primarily the characters are brought to life via O'Toole's gift for dialogue, which is truly remarkable. Of course Ignatius's speech is as unique as his characterisation - pompous, sesquipedlian, yet diving straight into the gutter the instant it's least appropriate. Towards the book's conclusion, O'Toole ropes in more peripheral characters who have been affected by Ignatius' zeppelin-sized personality and they're always amusing, well-sketched, and believable. For that reason I feel safe in recommending this book equally to both genders - providing, of course, you can tolerate the main character.

The bad

I imagine that some may not, however. Reilly is a risky proposition from a publishing standpoint, which may explain why it took so long for him to see a bookshelf. Even explaining why Dunces is so good necessitates an effort of persuasion that it's more than the sum of the synopsis. Along the same lines, a film version has been in the works for decades now, with a great many comedic actors queuing to play the title role - THEY understand why it's great, but you'd have a much, much harder time convincing a studio executive that a film centred around such an obnoxious, corpulent, misanthropic man-child could appeal to the public.

It's definitely not P.C. - a statement which, in itself, has become an annoying cliche, shorthand for everything from "unapologetically bigoted," to "a surprisingly generous use of the word cunt" but, concerning Confederacy, it means what it says. This book was written and published back when it was unquestionably OK for a white male author to write a black, jive-talking janitor (who is actually one of the smartest characters in the book, and a potential stereotype only via ebonics,) or a tough, conniving bitch, or a party full of pooves. There's racism, sexism, and naughty words, but they all come from the characters, as and when they would in reality. There's no authorial agenda here, except perhaps the idea that New Orleans is full of freaks, and I think it's fair to say we all assume that anyway. Nonetheless, consider yourself warned.

The author killed himself. So, excluding a novel he wrote age nineteen, that's it for his output. Done. Which is obviously a gigantic shame, and if you like this as much as I did, you'll feel the same way.

What I learnt

That it's a pity it's 'risky' for authors to attempt certain themes - it almost goes without saying that, if the classics were subject to the strictures of contemporary publishing, most of them would never get published in the first place.

In short

Title: Confederacy of Dunces
Author: John Kennedy Toole
Publisher: Grove Weidenfeld
ISBN: 978-0802130204
Year published: 1987
Pages: 405
Genre(s): Humour, Contemporary literature
Review Type: