Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Even people who don’t like this book concede it’s well written. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was on my reading list for a few years before I picked it up. I knew it had won the Pulitzer (which meant it was either brilliant or dry), but it remained unopened on my shelf. Then I read it in two sittings and loved it. It’s hard to explain how or why this book is so entertaining; it’s such an absurd story and, if you think about it too much, a very depressing one. Fortunately, Ignatius is so loud and melodramatic that thinking gets pushed to the side. Most of the laughs that come are of the “this is so ridiculous; I can’t believe it” variety.

Ignatius, a self-proclaimed visionary, traps himself in bizarre situations. He is an educated layabout who is shocked and offended when his mother forces him to get a job to pay for car repairs. He wanders New Orleans in search of work and takes jobs as a hot dog vendor and at Levy Pants. Resorting to his own logic instead of common sense, Ignatius spends his workday coloring signs, growing beans, and inciting rebellions. As to his actual job responsibilities, he finds different ways of ensuring that they don’t get done and that he isn’t blamed for any incidents. He has an excuse for everything. Perhaps his best comes during his stint as a hot dog vendor; he considers it beneath him to sell food on the street, so he eats the hot dogs himself (the reason he took the job in the first place) and lies about where they have gone. He tells his boss about a thief:

“Perhaps he was very hungry. Perhaps some vitamin deficiency in his growing body was screaming for appeasement. The human desire for food and sex is relatively equal. If there are armed rapes, why should there not be armed hot dog thefts? I see nothing unusual in the matter.”
“You’re full of bullshit.”
“I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon our society. The youth, crazed by suggestive television programs and lascivious periodicals, had apparently been consorting with some rather conventional adolescent females who refused to participate in his imaginative sexual program. His unfulfilled physical desires therefore sought sublimation in food. I, unfortunately, was the victim of all this. We may thank God that this boy has turned to food for an outlet. Had he not, I might have been raped right there on the street.” (164)

Some people will find this side-splittingly hilarious. Others will find it crude. I can’t push you one way or another, but I can tell you that this is how most of the book runs. Ignatius has special contempt for expressed sexual desires, and many of his speeches blame sexuality in one form or another. He often runs around looking for innuendo so that he might have something to become incensed about; pop culture is a reliable fuse for him.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the book is the way the reader is pulled into Ignatius’ lies and only given the full story after the fact. The final scenes are a frenetic train wreck as all of Ignatius’s plotting begins to turn back on itself. The book is written in a close third-person narration. Ignatius is supported by other characters who are as ridiculous as he, but it’s harder to see how their stories fit into his until it all coalesces in the climax. The narrative jumps smoothly between the stories in a way that builds tension instead of detracting from it. A small example of how the true version of events comes out in pieces:

Ignatius is in trouble for picking a cat from the gutter while selling hot dogs:
“So you was playing with the cat.”
“No, I was not ‘playing’ with the cat. I only picked it up to fondle it a bit. It was a rather appealing calico. I offered it a hot dog. However, the cat refused to eat it. It was an animal with some taste and decency.” (208-209)

His true motive:
The afternoon had been wasted on the cat; Ignatius had tried to trap the cat in the bun compartment and take it home for a pet. But it had escaped. (212)

The consequences:
“What’s them bo-bos on your hand?”
Ignatius looked at the scratches he had received in trying to persuade the cat to remain in the bun compartment. (213)

The shift between the initial visual of Ignatius petting a gutter cat and the visual of Ignatius shoving the cat into the bun compartment and persuading it to stay is brilliant. The reader is always treated twice: first to Ignatius’ ludicrous explanation of events, then to the truth which is just as ludicrous. But as hard as you might laugh, there’s the understanding that none of the characters have a place anywhere. Their situations are unlikely to improve. Toole handles these fluctuations between humor and melancholy with skill.

A final note on the book itself: The manuscript surfaced after Toole committed suicide in 1969. In 1976, his mother began calling a teacher at Loyola who was initially unenthusiastic about reading it, but who quickly came to love it. Toole was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer prize for his work in 1981.

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0)

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