Classics Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Originally written 23 July 2015
I have added to my collection of Pulitzer Prize winning novels that I didn’t know won the Pulitzer Prize before I started reading them. I found out about this novel about a year ago while reading The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. Like so many classics I finally get around to reading, my only regret is that I did not read it sooner. Here is the review I wrote for Goodreads….
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My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ignatius J. Reilly is an obese slothful philosopher, who at age 30, lives with his mother in New Orleans during the early 1960s. Ignatius, with his unique medieval worldview and his penchant for conflict with all sectors of modern society, make him a wonderful and hilarious character. In addition the novel bursts with a cast of equally fascinating characters including Irene Reilly, his loving but increasingly exasperated mother, Angelo Mancuso, a meek undercover cop, Lana Lee, the evil proprietor of the “Night of Joy” strip club, Burma Jones, her verbose African-American porter/janitor, Mr. Levy, the owner of a down-and-out pants factory, Mrs. Levy, his pseudo psychoanalyst wife, Dorian Greene, a gay man who loves to give parties in the French Quarter, and Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius’ anarchist ex-girlfriend.
When A Confederacy of Dunces begins Ignatius is waiting for his mother outside the D.H. Holmes Department Store and Patrolman Mancuso attempts to arrest him for being a suspicious character. (There is now a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly where D.H. Holmes used to be. I may want to go see that statue.) Ignatius dresses oddly, always wearing a green hunting cap with flaps and is frequently seen muttering to himself. Chaos ensues as he and his mother escape into the crowd. After a night of drinking at the Night of Joy bar his mother, Irene, runs the car into the wall of an old building and the next day is sued for $8000 in damages. She has become friends with Mancuso and his Aunt Santa and under Santa’s influence, begins to develop a new sense of self confidence. She insists that Ignatius get off his butt and get a job to help pay the bill. This sets the ball rolling for a series of adventures as Ignatius emerges from his cluttered bedroom and begins interacting with the working world.
Ignatius constantly writes his thoughts and experiences on sheets of Big Chief note paper. This gives the reader interludes of first person narration and allows us to understand the workings of his mind, which is a combination of insanity and wild genius. Walker Percy, who helped get the novel published posthumously in 1980, called Ignatius a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” I don’t think you could wrap him up with a better description than that.
In addition to his notes for a future book, Ignatius exchanges long insulting letters with ex-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff. When she challenges him to become more socially active, he attempts to organize the factory workers at Levy pants to attack the office manager and demand higher wages. Later he attempts to organize the French Quarter gay community to infiltrate the U.S. Military as a path to world peace. Neither movement proceeds smoothly.
Toole had to have loved people of all kinds to have written A Confederacy of Dunces; you feel he poured his soul into writing it. Unfortunately he could not get it published and killed himself in 1969 at the age of 31. So sad. The ending just screams for a sequel and it’s hard to imagine any other author being able to come close to the unique voice of this novel: the New Orleans setting is steeped in atmosphere, the dialects are perfect, and the historical time comes across in a way it would be hard to capture again. Toole had to be there, and in fact some of the incidents are based on his own experiences. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a more deserving novel.