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Book review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

My Wednesday Review this week is of an old favourite which has attained cult status amongst certain sections of the reading populace.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. 

First the backstory. John Kennedy Toole wrote this uproariously funny story   in the early Sixties, met with rejection after rejection from publishers everywhere, and eventually committed suicide in sheer despair.

Years later, (in 1980, to be precise) his mother got the book out into print and one year later, the book won a Pulitzer. There has been a radio adaptation of it, a musical comedy, a theatrical presentation. There stands a bronze statue of the book`s hero Ignatius J. Reilly  on the down-river side of  Canal Street in New Orleans. In 2019, the BBC News included  the book on its list of the 100 most influential novels.

Basically, the whole sequence of events stand out as a prime example of tragic irony since the author never got to see the stupendous success of his work.

The book`s title comes from a Swift essay:  “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.        “ And if that doesn`t intrigue the reader immediately, I don`t know what will.

Confederacy... is tightly packed with colourful characters moving at a swift pace, a pace that belies the monstrous bulk of its unlikely hero Ignatius J Reilly. In Reilly,  you find shades of Oliver Hardy, Don Quixote, Thomas Aquinas but basically, Reilly is Reilly, incomparably unique, with the strangest sartorial sense and an even stranger worldview, one of a small clutch of protagonists in modern-day literature who simultaneously fascinate and repel the reader.

When his wild-eyed, maroon-haired mother sets the wheel of Fortuna on its downward spin by plunging them into penury and forcing Reilly to lumber out in search of a job, all of New Orleans seems to be up in arms against our man. With a  worldview that prescribes he must loathe and vociferously fight Protestants, Catholics, gays, heterosexuals, old people, modern people and just about everybody else, what follows is one hilarious prizefight: Ignatius Reilly vs the World.

In these cycles of confrontations, the reader gets to meet some denizens of the city`s French Quarter. There is I. Jones, the bartender of the extremely shady Night of Joy bar, who speaks Black English like a bard. Sample this: `I think color cats got sweepin, moppin in they blood, it come natural. Like being a vagrant, that too come natural.`

There is Lana Lee the proprietor of the Night of Joy,  whose extracurricular activities are of considerable interest to both Jones and the New Orleans Police Department. There is Arlene, who makes the most sensational of all floorshow debuts with her moth-eaten cockatoo. There is industrialist Gus Levy who has inherited his textile concern `like a family chamberpot,` and Mrs Gus Levy, a woman  in perennial search of some cause – any cause —  to espouse.

And there is Miss Trixie. All she wants is to be left alone. But Mrs Gus Levy decides all Miss Trixie needs is a makeover, and the former has to literally bite the hand that gave her dentures, to disabuse the latter of the idea. Then there is the city of New Orleans which has an absolutely starring role in the book.

Everything and everyone comes together in a mad melee of a finish. The New York Times called Confederacy… a masterwork of comedy. One feels a keen sense of loss that we have been deprived of other masterworks from the pen of John Kennedy Toole.

Read it for one rollicking ride, as also a sharp look at human foibles and frailties.


A Confederacy of DunceshumourJohn Kennedy TooleNew OrleansNew Orleans in literature

Sheila Kumar • March 16, 2021

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