A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
Louisiana State University Press
The tragic tale of John Kennedy Toole is well-known in major literary circles, if not entirely commonplace to regular fiction readers. A martyr-like figure whose genius was unrecognised until years after his death, Toole took his own life after facing endless rejection of his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.
But persistence sometimes pays off, and Toole's loving mother shopped his book around for years before it finally found a publisher. In what was alternatively seen as both a consolation prize from an embarrassed industry and a fitting tribute to a brilliant writer, Dunces was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer in 1980, with the book now regularly making many a list of great American novels.
Set in New Orleans in the 1960s, the semi-autobiographical book follows Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, lazy mid-30s man-child, as he tries to find a job amid such temptations as movie matinees and hot dogs.
Along for the ride are a host of oddball characters, including a poorly disguised undercover police officer, a potty-mouthed janitor, a tyrannical strip club owner, a high school pornographer, a factory owner and his clueless team of workers, and a doting mother.
With Dunces, Toole paints a poignant hyperbole of his life, one that mirrored his own existence as a highly educated academic facing off against endless fools. Taking heavy influence from such other unreliable lead characters as Don Quixtote, Reilly travels through a world that misunderstands him, and the journey is both tragic and terrifying. Each silly, screwball character he encounters is unable to see the bigger picture that the slovenly dressed intellectual is painting.
Granted, some of his schemes are hysterically foolish, but the outlandish, almost absurd situations Reilly finds himself in are no doubt in line with what Toole often faced.
More than anything, though, Dunces is pure entertainment. Toole had a clever gift for juxtaposing quick-witted humour against endlessly stupid characters and slapstick situations, creating a story that is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Reilly is intelligent and articulate but unabashedly egotistical in his sense of grandeur - which makes for some funny reading. Take his ridiculous reasoning for being such a fat, lazy slob: 'I was emulating the poet Milton by spending my youth in seclusion, meditation and study.'
One could easily offer the cliche that had Toole not killed himself, we'd have many masterpieces from the late author, rather than just the one. But along the same darkly humorous tone as Dunces, we'd prefer to say that had the fool not killed himself, the world would never have been offered such a skilful and side-splitting novel.