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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pocket Book Review: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces
By John Kennedy Toole

In 1969 after going on a two-month whirlwind trip across the country, and nearly 6 years after finishing his masterwork, John Kennedy Toole stopped in Biloxi, Mississippi and killed himself, leaving his only two novels, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Neon Bible, unpublished. Several years later his mother, Thelma Toole, discovered the manuscript for Dunces and put it in the hands of author Walker Percy who was so blown away by the novel that he personally guided the manuscript to publication. A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980; over 10 years after Toole’s death, and the following year it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The machinations that went into the publishing, and ensuing canonization, of A Confederacy of Dunces is important because it is one of the few modern examples of a literary genius being posthumously recognized. Similar to Emily Dickenson’s poetry, John Kennedy Toole’s comedic masterpiece was misunderstood and subsequently rejected during its own time*, only to be resurrected in the most unlikely manner. Furthermore there is a certain inherent irony in A Confederacy of Dunces, which is predominantly concerned with a man and his domineering mother, only being brought to fruition because of the actions of the deceased author’s supposedly domineering mother.

With or without this knowledge, however, there is no doubt that A Confederacy of Dunces is every bit the comedic juggernaut it is cracked up to be. The book follows the travails of Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight, overeducated louse of a man who, even at the ripe age of 30, still lives with his steadily more hysterical mother. A car accident early in the novel sets the whole silly charade in motion as Ignatius is forced to get a job to pay for the damages. Not being particularly suited to steady work, Ignatius’ overworked imagination and basic naivety lead him from one ridiculous scenario to another, upsetting everyone he encounters, until eventually the novel’s entire cast of colorful French Quarter characters converge for one massive comedic explosion.

The title is taken from a line in Jonathan Swift’s Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting, “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 Toole takes this basic premise and turns it on its head. Clearly unhappy with the excesses of the 1960s Toole creates, in Reilly, a grand anti-hero for the Love Generation, a ambiguously homosexual medievalist with gastrointestinal problems and a penchant for rampant masterbation, and sets him loose on an unsuspecting world. The result? A hilarious romp of a novel that is even more brilliant from being written before the 1960s really got underway.

Verdict: A Confederacy of Dunces is a thoroughly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud novel that deserves every bit of its place in the canon of great modern American literature.

*The novel was slated for release in the mid-1960s by Simon and Schuster but eventually was dropped because it wasn't "really about anything".