I don’t know about y’all, but I have really been lovin’ this spring weather lately. After several years of living in almost continuous gray weather, coming back south where everything starts blooming the first week of April has been quite the upgrade. Charlie boy and I spent the Easter weekend in Savannah, where we explored historic houses, ate way too many carbs, and of course, whiled away an afternoon reading on the sun-dappled grass of Forsyth Park.
To kick off my “Make America Read Again” project this week, I decided to pick a lighter read to go with the sunny weather. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the many books on my list of “Stories I Should’ve Already Read By Now.” You know those books that you’re embarrassed to admit you haven’t read yet, because you always brag about how much you like to read and you were an English major so obviously you wouldn’t skip out on any classics? Just me? Well, in any case, reading about the trials and tribulations of Ignatius J. Reilly and his pyloric valve was long overdue, so I feel an extra sense of accomplishment for finally being able to cross this title off of the list. Plus, since the novel is set with New Orleans, it paired well with our weekend under the Spanish moss from another port city :).
When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
The story behind the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces is almost as famous as the book itself. John Kennedy Toole, a New Orleans native, wrote the novel in 1963 after being inspired for the character of Ignatius from a memorable coworker. After returning home, he worked and revised the manuscript for months with Robert Gottlieb of Simon and Schuster publishing fame, though in the end Gottlieb felt that the novel was “pointless” and decided not to move forward with a publishing deal. Toole had a history of depression, and this rejection sent him into a downward spiral. After embarking on a roadtrip across the country, Toole committed suicide in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1969.
A few years later, Toole’s mother found the manuscript and began to finish what her son had started. She sent it out to publishers until she caught the attention of Walker Percy, who got it published eleven years after Toole’s death and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. The story of Toole’s life as well as the novel’s journey to publication is actually being made into a movie starring Nick Offerman and Susan Sarandon called “Butterfly in the Typewriter.”
The novel opens with our protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, our bumbling, Boethius-quoting, hunter-cap wearing, lute playing anti-hero. He is waiting for his mother, who is also his roommate, to finish her shopping in the French Quarter. Never one to shy away from conflict, the opening pages include Ignatius nearly getting arrested by a police officer while waxing poetic on his “violent revolt against the entire modern age.” He escapes to a bar where his mother quickly downs several drinks (there is a non-zero chance that Mrs. Reilly is a lush) where they get into another altercation with a fellow patron, and then run away to their car where they crash into an actual house, and so on.
The majority of the novel’s action is centered around Ignatius’ lackluster attempt at gaining employment while extolling his life philosophy to anyone who will listen. His first job as a file clerk in a pants manufacturing company, Levy Pants, somehow ends up with him leading a workers’ revolt. He then takes on the role of hot dog vendor, where he must interact with the “miscreants” of the French Quarter. In his spare time, he writes angry letters to his ex-girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, a New York beatnik Ignatius portrays as a “sex-obsessed liberal minx.” He also spends a lot of time doing, well, nothing. He often blames his “pyloric valve” and general digestive issues on his lack of activity, and spends hours soaking in the bath, much to the ire of his mother who begs him to leave the house and do something as she talks in “that accent that occurs south of New Jersey only in New Orleans, that Hoboken near the Gulf of Mexico.”
In so many ways, this book sounds like a recipe for disaster. But somehow, it’s delightful. Toole has captured the Sazerac-tinged haze of the French Quarter in his cast of characters. Everyone from the petty criminal bar owner to the dopey undercover cop to the nosy neighbor were seamlessly written into the New Orleans world that I grew up visiting. The situations our protagonist finds himself in, as well as the moral soliloquy he imparts at any opportunity, are brilliant and hysterical. Until I read this book, I didn’t understand people who actually “laughed out loud” at a book, but now I totally get it. This book had me guffawing in public places like a deranged person. I was marking up lines from the book on every other page, copying down quotes to use for future insults to my enemies ;).
And although Ignatius is incredibly off-putting, narcissistic, and grotesque in a lot of ways, at times I could also relate to his disgust for modern society. Haven’t we all felt surrounded by people who didn’t understand us at one point or another? Haven’t we all felt a sense of self-righteous (and hypocritical) disgust toward our McDonald’s consuming, Instagram-filtering, designer bag buying society? That sense of intellectual isolation and consumerist aversion is a universal theme we can all relate to.
In short, Confederacy of Dunces was a delightful beginning to this year of patriotic reading. I’d recommend it for those who enjoy picaresque novels a la Don Quixote or Tom Jones, dark humor writing like that of David Sedaris, or anyone who holds a crush on New Orleans.
Until next time, happy reading!