The posthumous Pulitzer winner: Confederacy of Dunces

Confederacy of Dunces

  • Author:  John Kennedy Toole  (1937  –  1969)
  • Rank:  #38
  • Published:  1980
  • Publisher:  Louisiana State University Press
  • Pages:  405
  • First Line:  “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”
  • Last Line:  “Taking the pigtail in one of his paws, he pressed it warmly to his wet moustache.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  long rumored, never made
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize
  • First Read:  August, 2000

The Novel:  “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”  In just 14 words, John Kennedy Toole perfectly situates us for one of the funniest novels ever written.  He not only gives us a perfect physical description of Ignatius J. Reilly, but also the kind of language we will be hearing.  There is much close description, a lot of squeezing into the clothes and ever so much flesh.  Or look at this description, later on the first page: “Shifting from one hip to the other in his lumbering, elephantine fashion, Ignatius sent waves of flesh rippling beneath the tweed and flannel, waves that broke upon buttons and seams.”

How could readers have been prepared for Reilly?  It is well known now, the story of how this novel came to be.  Toole wrote it in the sixties, a tale of his own New Orleans, of his own time and place, but failed to find a publisher.  Eventually, in despair, he killed himself.  Years later, his mother, in possession of a dirty carbon of the manuscript, managed to finally get it into the hands of Walker Percy.  Percy read it, was overwhelmed by it, got it through into publication with Louisiana State University Press and it became the last small press novel to win the Pulitzer until Tinkers in 2010.  It has been beloved ever since for millions of readers.

Why?  Well, for one thing, it is as funny as nearly any book – a match in some ways to Portnoy’s Complaint and The World According to Garp.  Just look at Ignatius’ world-view: “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.”  Or watch as Ignatius moves from job to job in an insanity that could only be read at – to describe the plot structure would be to lose the comic flow of the novel.

But it is not just that the book is funny.  It’s also how remarkable it is – how good a portrait of the New Orleans of its time, whether it be the Reilly’s neighborhood (“It was a neighborhood that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly – and with very limited funds.”) or the headquarters of Paradise Vendors, the hot dog stand that Ignatius ends up working for (“The garage doors were usually open, giving the passerby an acrid nostrilful of boiling hot dogs and mustard and also of cement soaked over many years by automobile lubricants and motor oils that had dripped and drained from Harmons and Hupmobiles.”).  There is also the bodily functions of Ignatius, which we are made far more privy to than we would ever want to be: “He filled with gas, the sealed valve trapping it just as one pinches the mouth of a balloon.  Great eructations rose from his throat and bounced upward toward the refuse-laden bowl of the milk glass chandelier.”  Just in that one word choice is the summation of the novel: eructations.  And it’s not Toole showing off, either.  It is the perfect word for what we are witnessing, and by choosing it, Toole manages to raise our vocabulary without making us feel stupid by leaping for a dictionary.  There is no question what it means, yet it is a word that almost no one else would have chosen.

Which brings us to the final thing about the novel.  It is the connection to Boethius.  The Consolation of Philosophy is mentioned numerous times and even becomes a plot-point, but you don’t have to know anything about it to enjoy the book.  But if you have read Boethius and you begin to see the connections, not just the way Ignatius’ Fortuna wheel keeps turning down on him, but all the connections, then it opens up before you.

As you read it, if you are anything like me, then you will keep thinking of the wonderful Jonathan Swift quotation that gives the book its title, and even if Ignatius is too painful for you, you will still think of your own times when this applies to your own life: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.”

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