Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Dunces" A Remarkable Novel...Possibly My Favorite

I first read "A Confederacy of Dunces", by the late John Kennedy Toole, in its initial release in 1981.  I knew nothing about the book or the circumstances surrounding its then-recent publication.  I barely knew what a Pulitzer Prize was, but since the cover proclaimed it a Pulitzer Winner, I decided it was the type of highbrow fiction I was craving at that particular time.

It turned out to be the funniest, most sustained comic writing I had ever read.  Still, thirty years later, it maintains its unique place in my literary experience. It still makes me laugh out loud, and remains my favorite novel.  I have never read anything like it since (although "Catch-22" comes closest to the general air of absurdity, bordering on tragedy, that "Dunces" has in its very fiber).

Since then I have read it many times, and for a period of years I read it annually.  Each time, it yields more devastating laughs; and each time, more of the tragedy of Ignatius Reilly (who I believe is a monstrous caricature and confessional of the author himself) bleeds through.

Ignatius J(aques) Reilly is an obese, gross, pompous man-child, a highly educated genius who rails against the perversion and obscenity of the current era, longing to live according to medieval rules and structure. He is a walking time bomb, alienating everyone around him with his impenetrable opinions and philosophy.  Living in New Orleans with his long-suffering mother Irene, he is forced to emerge as a contributing citizen, and the book speeds off from there. What ensues is an eloquent, clever, and intricate series of progressively absurd and hilarious events.  The characters surrounding Ignatius are as bawdy a lot you will ever read, all rendered perfectly by Toole's understanding of dialects, his astonishing imagination, and intimate knowledge of the people about whom he writes.  

I will not divulge the incredible subplots and scenarios that culminate in giddy and inventive resolution.  In spite of the cartoonish characters that nevertheless emerge as comically flawed and human, the novel is ultimately about a reject who armors himself against pain by lashing out at everyone and everything, and especially those who could truly love and appreciate him....Ignatius does not suffer fools...or anyone...gladly. His lack of political correctness is part of the wicked fun.

I don't quite know how to go on without a spoiler warning here...

The story of the publication of this book is as interesting as the novel itself, and no doubt contributes to moments of profound sadness amid the breathtaking lunacy of Ignatius and his lot (the title comes from a quote by Jonathan Swift...that true genius is evident in one's midst because the dunces are in confederacy against him.)

Toole completed the manuscript in the early 1960's.  Much of the draft was completed during his service in the army, stationed in Puerto Rico.  Like Ignatius, Toole worked in a pants factory and was a street vendor for a time.  Toole was also a brilliant scholar with a masters Degree who taught English.

His suicide in 1969 at age 32 is still a mystery.  But I think the clues to Toole's despair can be found in his brilliant novel. 

After his death, his mother tried for a long time to have the book published.  It finally fell into the hands of novelist Walker Percy who recognized its genius, and persuaded Grove Press to publish it from the smeared carboned manuscript without any editing.  It hit the shelves in 1980 to thunderous acclaim, became a cult hit (a statue of Ignatius stands in New Orleans) and won the Pulitzer Prize for Toole posthumously in 1981.

What a visionary work.  In comic fashion, Toole takes his hero through the sexual revolution, Civil Rights (he encourages Black factory workers to riot), recruiting gays in the military world-wide (who would then be so busy throwing cocktail parties that there would finally be world peace), and the ennui of consumer culture....years before these became high-profile issues!

In spite of his seeming lack of touch with reality, ironically everyone whom Ignatius encounters gets fair resolution to their plights, or at least some measure of justice. The plots fall into place like an elaborately designed line of dominos.

Yet if you look closely, there are moments when Ignatius' troubled past starts to explain his grotesque awkwardness and alienation of those around him.  He is a Freudian nightmare, stuck in an arrested development of both oral and anal stages (his constant eating, his obsession with his "valve").  He expresses his warped affections for his "girlfriend" Myrna in suggestively lewd and aggressive writing and behavior.  Glimpses of his childhood reveal moments of utter shame and abandonment. The turning point seems to have been the death of Ignatius' boyhood dog, Rex, and the local priest's refusal to say a funeral mass for the poor animal.

By the end of the book, when Ignatius' fate seems inevitable, and his mother tells him "I love you", it cuts through the outrageousness to pure emotion.  One can only imagine the anguish of Toole's mother when she found and read this manuscript. 

Finally, many incidents point to the possibility that Toole, through his monstrous creation Ignatius, felt the need to come to terms with his own sexuality, and the rejection that being gay in the pre-Stonewall 1960's might have caused him. This is purely speculation on my part.  A close reading of the book provides many clues to what must have been Toole's ultimate despair.  But the book is so funny that Toole successfully distracts from speculation about his own part in the characterization. One keeps reading to find out what will happen next, so it requires another reading (at least) to discover how truly wonderful the writing is.

I highly recommend this unusual, funny, and groundbreaking work.  It's unfortunate that Toole did not live to write more....


  1. Hi Tom,
    I discovered your blog today. So wonderful. I share your love of dogs and of personal rediscovery. I am trying to read as much of your blog as possible to get myself up to date. I may have missed this, if so please forgive me--did you ever adopt Oliver?

  2. Cheryl
    I am thrilled that you found me. You are welcome here any time! I just completed a year at this blog, and have spent a lot of time with it..it has been a great experience.
    Oliver found a home, fortunately, but not with me, sadly. It was probably best, as I was about to leave for San Francisco for a week, and hated to see him linger in a cage.
    Do you have a blog too? I would love to visit.

  3. Hi Tom!
    Well, if I had a blog, you would surely be welcome to visit :) Didn't even discover Facebook till around a year ago. Am technology-challenged for sure. But I love reading your insights and experiences. Thank you.
    P.S. Glad little Oliver found a home. Great news!

  4. Thanks for your post; always nice to find another FOI (Follower of Ignatius;-)– not that I seek them out! I believe Ignatius’ letter to Abelson’s Dry Goods is one the funniest passages in American literature. And SO many images—the party boys devoutly listening to “Judy at Carnegie Hall;” Ignatius’ howls of distress while watching the latest Doris Day screen desecration; his urine-stained protest banner; his nightmare voyage aboard the Scenicruiser; the pitiful Gonzales and Miss Trixie; I.’s pleasuring himself to the memory of his beloved Rex (uurrrgh!), and on and on. Ah, what a great book!

    And I was fortunate to see Toole’s mother Thelma interviewed by Tom Snyder on the old Tomorrow Show; it must have been around the time Dunces won the Pulitzer. Needless to say, she bore more than a passing resemblance to Irene!

  5. Tony, I was very glad to receive your thoughtful and fascinating comment. You certainly share my great love for this book, and your summary is eloquent! I wonder if the Tom Snyder/Thelma Toole interview is available somewhere. By the way, do you have a blog I might visit?

  6. Hi, Tom: I've been mulling over starting one for quite some time. My dilemma stems from what exactly do I put into it, since I'd rather it be something different from a diary, yet not ruling out such entries 100%. Hope to have one soon; I really do need a creative outlet. Suggestions are most welcome!