A Confederacy of Dunces - Review by Carole

I read A Confederacy of Dunces while I was in New Orleans for a conference. I love when I get a chance to read a book in the city in which the story is set. I found the book to be an interesting experience--I found it both repulsive and compelling. I was fascinated to see how Ignatius J. Reilly was going to crash and burn and rise again from each situation. Definitely a dark comedy.

I found the introduction of the book by Walker Percy perhaps the most compelling element of all. The author--John Kennedy Toole--ended his life by suicide, and his mother persevered and was able to get the book published (it won a Pulitzer). How incredibly sad and what a tribute to a son from his grieving mother.

The book opens with a physical description of Ignatius J. Reilly:

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. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people…Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

I can't get the image of Reilly out of my mind, and I know that if I had ever seen a hot dog vendor attired as he was, in the French Quarter or anywhere, I would have crossed the street and scurried on by. The idea that ANYONE would try to buy a hot dog from him is amazing to me. I guess I would have been in the company of the horrified ladies who were staging their annual art show when he happened by.

Reilly often goes on at length about the delicate condition of his digestive system, no doubt aggravated by his unrelenting gluttony. If I had ever been subjected to listening to his discussions of his "valve" or his one disastrous attempt to leave New Orleans, I think I may have been ill.

I was intrigued by Reilly's fascination with Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy and how he often reflected on whether a person lacked theology and geometry. I picked up a copy of Boethius' work last summer and am now reading it. I'm enjoying the personification of Philosophy as a character, particularly as she reflects on how Fortune is always true to herself, but that people are only devotees of Fortune when she smiles on them. When she bestows ill favor on someone, she is just as true to herself, but people always feel betrayed.

I'm not sure if that is why Reilly values this book so much--he doesn't seem to be able to fathom why Fortune doesn't favor him more. His inability to see how his own actions contribute to the situations in which he finds himself is astounding and certainly seems to act as a sort of survival mechanism for him.

I admired Toole's ability to spin these different story circles at once--an exotic dancer and her parrot, mysterious "packets" for orphans, one floorsweeper’s determination to stick it to the lady who is underpaying him, Reilly’s mother's growing frustration with her son, a policeman desperate to save his career, and a college "girlfriend" who is determined to save Reilly from himself--until they collide in an organized chaos that has a "theology and geometry" of its own.

I wouldn't say that I loved the book, but it was like watching the proverbial train wreck--I couldn't look away.


Chris said...

Very interesting. Do you think it was the book itself that earned its reputation, or the story around the book?

I did not read Satanic Verses, but the death threats against the author gave it a notoriety the story and writing itself did not earn on their own.

Carole said...

Because this book came out so long ago, I don't really know. I know I had heard of the book, but I didn't know the story of how it came to be published until I read the introduction. The book wasn't published unti 11 years after Toole's death, so I don't think it was surrounded with a great deal of notoriety.