A Confederacy of Dunces

by John Kennedy Toole, Grove Press (1980)

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How to publish the Pulitzer Prize winning novel!

Create an incredible protagonist like Ignatius J. Reilly.  Simply come up with a 300-plus-pound Don Quixote, a physically and mentally objectionable middle-aged character, a stumbling, bumbling malcontent,a comedic genius of sorts, whose skewed psyche drives him to war with every living, breathing faction of society. An “equal opportunity  employer,” Ignatius hates everyone and everything — the middle class, the upper class, the lower class, rednecks, blacks, homosexuals, heterosexuals, movies, television, corporate America.

Drop this protagonist into New Orleans, a carnival-like setting where street life, rivers, docks and wharves beg the description of the written word. Take your readers to the French Quarter’s dives and topless bars and introduce them to genuine characters—drug dealers, porn pushers, bar tenders, whores, and undercover cops—locals who speak the dialect of the city in pitch-perfect Yat.

As we follow Ignatius though his unlikely yet hilarious escapades, a linchpin of his crazed personality is that (no surprise) this “equal opportunity employer” can’t remain employed!  So between the forays of his firings—the library, the university, Levy Pants, Paradise Vendors, etc. —he holds up in a back bedroom in his alcoholic mother’s run-down house on New Orleans’ Constantinople Street.  There alone, save an occasional visit from a rat or three in search of the remains of one of Ignatius’ unending snacks, he lies abed dressed in a long red flannel gown, while fighting bizarre masturbatory fantasies, and filling Big Chief tablets with his written world view, self-proclaimed masterpieces of hate focusing on the disaster course that history has been taking for the past four centuries.

He “somehow” manages to create these “works of art” while obsessed with and nursing a pyloric valve which slams shut at perceived stress—his mother’s suggestion that he consider a day job or, as the erudite and extremely well educated protagonist puts it, “. . . the very thought that there is no proper geometry and theology in the world,” Oh, all this confusion in his life is blamed on Fortuna, the Greek goddess of luck, who he believes has spun him downwards on her wheel of fortune.

That’s what Ignatius believes:  What Jonathan Swift allows in the book’s epigraph is:  “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

John Kennedy Toole’s genius appears in the very first paragraph of this novel, a work born to rave reviews—“. . . epic comedy,” The Washington Post; “. . . one of the funniest books ever written,” The New Republic; “. . . a grand comic fugue,” The New York Times Book Review.

Enter Ignatius:

 “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black mustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Homes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.”

Ah, how did this unlikely Pulitzer Prize winning publication come to fruition, one written by a deceased author (Toole committed suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty-two)? In the book’s foreword Walker Percy, the revered American philosopher, tips his scholarly cap to Toole’s mother whose relentless persistence finally resulted in Percy reluctantly reading a worn, weakly mimeographed copy of her deceased son’s novel.

“…the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”

And the adventure Percy refers to—Toole’s weaving of characters and events—is delivered on bizarre battlefields and come at us like great punch lines—with little warning and as deadly funny as the slamming of Ignatius’ valve.

Ignatius’ Battles:

  • The fray between mother and son waged over his contentious behavior, inability to get and keep a job that might save their eviction, and her addiction to Muscatel wine.
  • Through the U.S. Mail we experience his perverse and reverse “attraction” to one Myrna Minkoff, a beatnik/activist from his college days. The New York City based “minx” attempts to convince the populace (and Ignatius who she infers has homosexual leanings) that the inability to express oneself in sexual activity will eventually be the world’s undoing. Minkoff writes chastising Ignatius (for all he has become) and he returns threatening missives aimed at putting an end to her misdirected and radical behavior.
  • A confrontation with the police focuses on a poor undercover cop named Mr. Mancuso, who after trying in vain to arrest Ignatius, befriends his mother and eventually becomes everyone’s target for abuse—potential perps, his supervising officer and least of all Ignatius.
  • The entertainment industry falls squarely in his field of fire. Addicted to Doris Day movies, ‘60s Beach flicks, and TV dance programs, Ignatius fills Big Chief books with critiques of all, calling them “pornography!”
  • Complaints from the neighbor, Miss Annie, cause Ignatius to “take five” from his annoying bedroom blasts on his trumpet and lute to hurl buckets of water at her windows
  • The Fight for Moorish Dignity, a one-man crusade demanding fair wages for workers led by Ignatius against the management of Levy Pants, where herein poor recruited souls from the factory, singing battle hymns featuring Jesus, storm the boss’s office wielding wooden posts and tire chains.
  • A near fistfight with a teenager who attempts to purchase a Paradise  Vendors’ hotdog from Ignatius, one that our vendor intends to consume.
  • An Ignatius brainstorm, a gay rally to introduce a movement to infiltrate the military with homosexuals, all in an attempt to bring orgies not war to the world. This ill-conceived plan ends with our protagonist’s expulsion—they toss him into the street— by the calloused hands of three aggressive New Orleans’ lesbians.
  • A classic climax involving a stripper and her trained bird at a clip join called the Night of Joy results in front page newspaper coverage which appears to be Ignatius’ final undoing.

Causes for Ignatius’ Numerous Firings:

  • The mailing of obscene letters to clients under the name of company owner, Mr. Levy, the filing of important office documents in the trash and that aborted Fight for Moorish Dignity at Levy Pants.
  • The inability during a library workday to paste more than three or four stickers in books.
  • The failure to grade college papers written by freshmen (whom he considers to be subhuman) then tossing the works from a second story window wishing sterility on the students.
  • A reluctant street vendor for Paradise Vendors, eating his wares, and then returning empty handed claiming to have been attacked and robbed by the aforementioned “crazed” teenager.

The Virtual Fruit Basket of Characters:

  • Burman Jones, an African-American porter at the Night of Joy, hides behind humongous sunglasses and clouds of cigarette smoke. Constantly bitching about his less-than-minimum wage, he stays at the club because he’s been convinced by the owner that if he quits he will be unemployed and arrested for vagrancy.
  • Lana Lee, owner of the Night of Joy, runs the club with the will of an Adolf Hitler. She-by the by—is the genius behind the largest high-school pornography ring—called the Charity–in New Orleans.
  • Darlene, a Night of Joy Bar Girl, continues to lobby to become one of the club’s exotic dancers, promoting her act with a pet cockatoo trained to help her strip.
  • Dorian Greene, a purple flag-flying New Orleans gay who Ignatius recruits (along with his gang of homosexual friends) to infiltrate the armed forces and government—all in an effort to substitute orgies for war.
  • Patrolman Mancuso, an incompetent cop is convinced that Ignatius is in fact a pervert. When he continues to fail at arrests, his superior at the stationhouse punishes Mancuso by suiting the beleaguered cop up in  bizzarro costumes and staking him out in a stall in the Men’s Room of the New Orleans bus station.
  • Santa Battaglia, Patrolman Mancuso’s aunt, befriends Ignatius’ mother, takes her bowling and then—as a matchmaker—fixes her up with Claude Robichaux, a grandfather of six who believes the streets of New Orleans are being overrun by Communists.
  • Mr. Gonzalez, sad and much maligned office manager at Levy Pants, oversees and overlooks Ignatius and Miss Trixie. Oblivious to the fact that Trixie sleeps away the day at her desk while Ignatius is writing vile letters to customers, filing important papers in the trash, and planning to lead the factory workers in a revolt against him and Levy Pants.
  • Miss Trixie, the senile assistant accountant at Levy Pants, sleeps on the office floor or at her desk daydreaming of the Easter ham the company has promised her and of the day she will finally retire.
  • Liz Steele, Betty Bumper and Frieda, three lesbians, who never pass up a good fight, manage to take time out of their busy days to assault both Ignatius and the downtrodden cop Mancuso.
  • Mr. Clyde, owner of Paradise Vendors, employs Ignatius as a hotdog cart vendor and when profits are low (Ignatius is eating all the dogs) he dresses Ignatius as a pirate and places him and his cart in the French Quarter—all in an attempt to kick-start sales.

Well, in the end Toole shakes this fruit basket of characters in a way that somehow, apples nestle up to apples and oranges to oranges. And does his almost inexplicable—yet almost logical— story end in a major foray?  Ignatius wouldn’t have had it any other way.

But, Lord knows, as objectionable as it may sound, the underlying genius of this tale will be found by the peeling of the fruits—Ignatius’ psyche and those of the dunces who offend and at the end, surprisingly, defend him.  That said, we know Ignatius’ actions fail to follow what he professes.  He preaches (among many other things) willpower and practices gluttony.  The dunces?  Well, some may be considered society’s norm, but here Ignatius has a point. There are dunces, phonies everywhere, whose beliefs belie their image and behavior.

Those of us who don’t care to dig deeply into the book’s psychology will enjoy the well drawn characters, the intelligence of the dialogue and our protagonist’s unending war against the confederacy.  At the very least, the novel is a poignant, comedic comment on society, one that comes with both mirth and sorrow. But they’ll be few sobs from sadness in the reading. The tears will flow from uncontrolled laughter, the bet being—pyloric valves wide open—readers will turn Toole’s final pages wishing for more, knowing that another Ignatius adventure is no further away than one of his never ending gastric attacks.

For a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy the 1980 novel for less than Ignatius’ paltry take-home pay after a day on the streets peddling weenies for Paradise Vendors.  Simply click on the book’s cover.