A Confederacy of Dunces
By John Kennedy Toole
First Published: 1980
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Comedy, Literature
A Confederacy of Dunces is a unique comic novel from John Kennedy Toole. It contains one of the most eccentric characters in literature, Ignatius Reilly, who has a series of madcap adventures in New Orleans. Ignatius is a 30 year old, enormously fat slob who still lives with his mom. He is obsessed with documenting the tragic decline of civilization while he yearns for the magnificence of the Dark Ages. When disaster strikes and Ignatius is forced to go out into the world in search of work, everyone and everything he encounters will never be the same.
With Ignatius, Toole has created one of the zaniest characters you could imagine. He’s disgusting, funny, intellectual, naive, and pitiful all at the same time. He constantly rails against society and exercises his intellect by penning diatribes of invective against society. While others might call him paranoid, he prefers to think of himself as only being prudent when he assumes everyone is out to either get him or corrupt him. He is described best, perhaps, in his own words when he tells a policeman near the beginning of the novel, “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
Ignatius has spent his whole life in the city he was born in, New Orleans, except for one singular trip to Baton Rouge that he loves to describe in detail to anyone who will listen to him as the worst day of his life. Ignatius’s mother spent all of her savings on 8 years of college education for her son, only to have him end up back at home with no job. When she finally forces Ignatius to look for a job, he’s off on a series of comedy adventures. The comedy is broad ranging from Ignatius’s intellectual rants against society to gross personal misunderstandings, to plenty of physical and situational comedy.
Toole does an amazing job of breathing life into an eccentric cast of characters and the city of New Orleans itself. He has a tremendous ear for the speech patterns of the area which makes his characters seem all the more real. Ignatius himself mixes in lots of scholarly words with his southern drawl while other characters talk with accents ranging from the upper class to the most uneducated. The speech patterns sound completely natural which adds to the atmosphere and authenticity of the novel.
Within New Orleans, Ignatius encounters all the diversity he can handle. A downtrodden garment manufacturer seems like the perfect opportunity for Ignatius to use his outsized intellect to make a difference until he actually puts his plan into action. On the other hand, the excesses of the French quarter only provide more ammunition for Ignatius’s belief in the decline of civilization.
Ignatius also carries on a warped long distance relationship with a woman he met in college named Myrna Minkoff. They seem to have strong feelings for each other but as a strong liberal, her world view is almost dead opposite from Ignatius. Myrna thinks many of Ignatius’s problems could be cured with sex while Ignatius thinks Myrna is a radical liberal. However, Ignatius is obsessed with finding a way to impress Mirna as they engage in a series of intellectual skirmishes via letters.
Ignatius’s series of adventures seem to be only loosely connected initially but as the novel progresses, more and more connections are made between the characters and their situations. This ends up making the novel more than just a series of comedic episodes which makes the novel all that more satisfying.
This review has attempted to describe some of the flavor of A Confederacy of Dunces but the only way to really appreciate this novel is to read it. While the comedy is almost non-stop throughout, there’s a very sad footnote in that the author committed suicide at a young age before this novel was published.
For anyone who enjoys literate comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces should not be missed.