Review: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces
A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
New York: Grove Press, 1980

Review Copyright © 2005 Garret Wilson — 30 May 2005 8:00pm

My dear, minx-like friend, Doveta Jefferson, enthusiastically recommended that I read Confederacy of Dunces. "It was written by John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide and then posthumously won a Pulitzer prize after his mother got his discovered manuscript published," she explained. "I go back and read it from time to time. It centers around a 30-year-old self-proclaimed genius who sits at home and thinks the world is against him. He has his own humorous little set of quirks; the book is hilarious." I bought the book (the reviewers all enthusiastically proclaimed its comic content) and gave it a read.

In the end the book was less than satisfying. My opinion towards the book went (and continues to go) through several stages. The first was mild interest as Toole rapidly develops the main characters. My interest quickly changed to disgust. The main character, Ignatius Reilly, is indeed 30 years old. He lives at home with his mother, whom he continuously berates, and ventures out of his musky hole of a room only when virtually forced. He wears a trademark green hunting cap to cover his greasy hair, and a flannel shirt to cover his obese whale of a body. His only productive work is crayon doodles of supposed wisdom on Big Chief notebooks, which eventually wind up scattered and unused upon the floor. Outside the house, society constantly receives the brunt of his passionate, ornate ridiculing rhetoric. Mostly, however, he lies in bed, masturbating into a rubber glove while thinking of his long-dead pet dog.

Once I reached the disgust stage, it was hard to gather sufficient interest to continue reading. I only progressed by imagining that Doveta was gleefully reading over my shoulder. "He's having trouble with his 'valve' again," she would cackle in my imagination, referring to the organ of Ignatius' ontology that is, he is sure, at once the source of his bloating, the release control of his gas, a sort of conscious against moral terpitude, and a signal that "Fortuna's cycle" is either rising or falling. I finally managed to regain interest in the book by hoping that one of the characters with a hint of redeeming attributes, such as Jones or Miss Trixie, might somehow rise to the level of hero[ine]. Fortuna willed that I be disappointed in this regard.

Don't get me wrong—Toole provides some interesting psychological material for contemplation. Ignatius apparently began his decline (and his mother began her scolding) at the death of his dog. An easy interpretation is that this loss of the only emotional contact, with no replacement or pity (the local priest refused to come say a blessing) scarred Ignatius for life. This simplification has its problems; as such it is readily explained in the book, but only in the context of Mr. Levy's broader misunderstanding of Ignatius. His mother's first outbursts seemed to concide immediately (not a period later) with the dog's death, leading one to wonder if his mother had discovered that Ignatius had some extra, unexpected and unwanted affection for the animal. Adding to this Ignatius' mid-masturbatory dog flashbacks and his lack of sexual attraction to Myrna (whose sexual impulses are forever in overdrive) further clouds this analysis.

Toole also provides a hint of Ignatius' philosophy, which is forever stuck in the Middle Ages. Ignatius is apparently named after St. Ignatius of Antioch, a "true athlete of Christ" who defended the Christian faith against heretics and was delighted to become a martyr for the faith. Ignatius Reilly's favored philosopher is Boethius, another Christian martyr characterized as "the last of the Romans." His most famous work, and Ignatius Reilly's bible, is Consolations of Philosophy, the main point of which is to illustrate "the transitoriness and unreality of all earthly greatness and the superior desirability of the things of the mind," according to one description at New Advent. One of the most humorous portions of the book is when Ignatius realizes that the woman posed nude reading Consolations is not a fellow wandering, unappreciated soul, but rather a model for a pornography ring—and that the tome she holds in her hands is Ignatius' own, stolen from Patrolman Mancuso, to whom he had proselytingly loaned it. It is tempting to interpret the event as a metaphor for searching for one's desires and misinterpreting the results of the quest as a success, reinterpreting it positively through the hopeful use of one's own biases.

Indeed, one can derive multiple analytical moral models from the story—an allegory, for example, of an emotionally deprived child who feels alien in the world around him and consequently tries to change the world through his philosophy; and confusingly and simultaneously spurns emotional fulfillment and pursues it in the wrong places; all the while despising the mere mortal individuals around him. Oh, wait, I've just described Bertrand Russell—along with myself, Doveta, and half the world's population as well, I don't doubt. Perhaps reflection is a partial impetus for Doveta's devotion to the work, and maybe description (and prescription?) is part of the purpose of her recommendation.

Surely yielding to such analogies is expected, but I remain unconvinced that book is worth the effort. As an intricate parable it seems rather shallow and base. As a comedy it is rather dull. Toole does create a finely-weaved plot that (as expected) comes together in the "everything ends well(?)" finale. But is it worth a Pulitzer Prize? I'm not sure that it does. On the other hand, I'm not sure why I suddenly expect everyone with whom I speak to know its archetypal contents by heart. "I'm reminded here of Ignatius Reilly—do you recall that valve of his that was always acting up?" The person with whom I'm speaking looks confused. "Oh, you haven't read it?" I then sigh and realize that I'm somehow inexplicably disappointed.

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