A suicide, a determined mother and the Pulitzer Prize. Not many books can boast such a colourful history as A Confederacy of Dunces, which seems exceedingly fitting when you consider the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is about as colourful as they get.

Set in New Orleans in the 1960s, A Confederacy of Dunces follows the daily outrages, grievances and upheaval that the infamous Ignatius J. Reilly leaves in his wake.  Known for his massive size, his peculiar green hunting hat and the notorious ‘valve’, Reilly is a well-educated, pompous man that complains loudly and accomplishes little.

When his mother orders him to get a job to save them from bankruptcy, Reilly manages to scrape himself a pitiful job, though he spends more time exacting revenge on that ‘Minkoff minx’ than actually working. With his ability to disavow everything in sight, and his talent at causing chaos just by his mere presence, Reilly creates a bizarre chain of events that lead to a political party made up of homosexual;, a mad dash to avoid the mental hospital; and an attack from a crazed bird, just to name a few.

Though an ironic and humorous novel that spends a great portion of its narrative poking fun at its characters, A Confederacy of Dunces actually has quite a sad past. The author, John Kennedy Toole, wrote the novel, believing it to be his great opus, only to have it rejected time and time again. Combined with mental illness, Toole’s failure to have the book published led to his suicide in 1969.

However, the acts of his determined mother, who crusaded to have the book published, led to A Confederacy of Dunces becoming a cult classic after it was released in 1980. Furthermore, Toole was post-humorously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

While Toole’s writing is a wonderful mix of wit, irony and self-deprecation, I can also understand why many editors may have viewed it as ‘un-publishable’. A Confederacy of Dunces lacks the normal story arch that so many readers need in order to enjoy a book, and needless to say, Ignatius is a truly abhorrent individual.

In saying that, personally I think the awfulness of Ignatius’s character is what made the novel. He’s well-educated, articulate and has never had to work a day in his life, and as a result is a lazy, self-absorbed human being. Ring any bells? Perhaps it’s because I did an Arts degree, but these sort of people (perhaps not to the same degree) were everywhere. Waxing about philosophy, then grumbling when they were expected to complete assignments. Woefully complaining how much study load they have and so little time…and then admitting they still live at home and their parents provide them with money so they don’t have to work. Professing that they know what’s best because “um, actually, I’m studying psychology, and in psychology we learned…”

The storyline of A Confederacy of Dunces centres around this Ignatius character because, despite his complete inability to achieve anything, his actions invariably lead to the greatest consequences. Plus, his world beliefs, and his ever-constant complaints about his pesky ‘valve’ are downright hilarious.

There is this wonderful scene where he is selling hotdogs, dressed as a pirate and talking to a local homosexual man. Somehow, they get onto the topic of the army and politics, and Ignatius comes to the wonderful thought that all homosexuals should enlist in the army. Why? Because then, they’ll be too focused on sleeping with the opposition, instead of killing them, thus ending all wars and creating peace throughout the world.  Hurrah! Though it comes across insensitive, Toole writes the scene in such a way that it just comes across as absolutely ludicrous and absurd, and we, as the readers, are giving a wonderful glimpse into the mind of Ignatius J. Reilly.

 

I thought that A Confederacy of Dunces was a really good, fun book. It’s excellently written, the characters are fantastic yet well-rounded, and it’s narrated throughout with a voice that is the right mix of wit, bemusement and tolerance. If you’re a fan of literature, or you appreciate an outrageous protagonist, then A Confederacy of Dunces is for you.

 

Have you read A Confederacy of Dunces or heard of John Kennedy Toole?  Let me know!

a confederacy of dunces by john kennedy toole

A Confederacy of Dunces – (image taken from http://www.images-amazon.com)

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