Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. New York: Wings Books, 1980.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love
John Kennedy Toole has only one published book, A Confederacy of Dunces, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The award was given posthumously since Toole died of suicide in 1969. The book was presented to publishers posthumously as well when his mother contacted Walker Percy by letter asking him to look over her dead son’s manuscript. If the story of the novel’s publication elicits sensitivities, this is nothing compared to how incredibly sensitive people are when defending their position on A Confederacy of Dunces.
In A Confederacy of Dunces, readers are introduced to Ignatius J. Reilly, a very fat, very bored, and very complicated master meddler. Ignatius meddles in everyone’s business and is tied up in a weave of stories and characters brackish and static. There isn’t much that happens in the plot; basically, Ignatius’ mother gets in a drunk driving accident and is fined so she asks Ignatius to find a job to pay off the fine. Ignatius is a thirty something unpublished writer with a master’s degree who won’t be trapped in the “system.” In every job he lands he causes problems, uprisings, and treason (effectively dressed as a pirate for one gig).
The book takes a close look at working class New Orleans. Toole’s use of language was brilliant and while most readers pinpoint the humor of the story, I continually found myself keyed in to the underlying sorrow. Humor in this story, for me, isn’t the point. Toole was illustrating sorrowful characters with tragic stories and he used the humor to break the monotony of dead-end lives and days dragged through the mud of poverty.
I’ve never seen a book as divisive as this one. Discuss a book with a group of people and you will get strongly emotional reactions. Book clubs are disbanded after disputes over Ignatius. Friendships are altered after breaking down “who” are the “dunces” in the title. I’ve never seen a book have such a direct impact on how people judge others. In book reviews I’ve read lines like: “If you don’t like this book then we definitely aren’t on the same page,” or “I know I’ll like someone if their favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces.” I haven’t seen this happen so frequently with other books I’ve read. Whether you did or didn’t like the book, it clearly leaves an impression on people and that is worth noticing.
This books is FOR people: who like quirky characters, interesting illustrations of dialect and language, or who are interested in literature set in New Orleans.
This book is NOT FOR people: who are expecting a fast-paced story, who are expecting a mystery or romance, who are expecting all loose ends to be tied up.
5 darts out of 5