A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Laugh-out-loud-while-reading-on-public-transit funny. (Please head to the Cannonball Read 6 Blog to have fun and fight cancer!)
I read this book because I am very slowly working my way through all the books that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Dunces won in 1980. There is a certain anticipation when starting an award winning novel. I wonder “What is so special about this work? Why did it win?” I wonder if I am up for the challenge, if I can do the work justice as a reader.
I didn’t know what I was getting into.The beginning of Dunces is rollicking and the characters finely drawn. I wondered where the story was going, once I had a glimpse of this world. I felt a tension, would I be able to finish reading this tome? I have failed to finish Pulitzer winners in the past (I’m looking at you Caine Mutiny!).
“Am I going to be attacked in my own home by a stranger with a false beard?”
The main character is Ignatius J. Reilly. A mountain of a man possessed of multiple University degrees and precious little common sense or self awareness. After getting his master’s degree he has become a slacker Über (or Ünter) mensch. He lives with his long suffering mother, working at a glacial pace on a great work condemning the excesses of the modern age. He revels in his own disgust at the “abortions” on television and movie screens. He constantly descries the lack of “theology and geometry” evinced by all walks of life.
“Any connection be tween American art and American nature is purely coincidental but this is only because that nation as a while has no contact with reality.”
A backwards looking man so obsessed with idealizing history claiming that nothing modern can be good, even as he gobbles up modern culture. Comically tremendous in all things: speech, size, appetite, reactions. Even his procrastination is epic. Ignatius is a man so large in both persona and personality, that he pulls people into his gravity well. He and his mother, after narrowly escaping arrest, take refuge in the Night of Joy nightclub. What follows is a bizarre unfolding of barely related events, all of them pulled from their planned and usual courses by Igantius’ wake.
“Her brown wedgies squeaked with discount price defiance.”
Jones, the only main character in the book who is black, is remarkable. He is a character without being a caricature. Uneducated, black, and speaking in a thick dialect, he is the Anti-Ignatius. He is well aware of his place in the world. He is being taken advantage of by Lana Lee, the proprietress of the Night of Joy, and plots his revenge against her for his substandard treatment. His incisive cleverness is a treat amongst the deluded characters around him. Throughout the novel he maneuvers around Ignatius and the Night of Joy. He engineers a spectacular vengeance that is the climax of the book and that succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. I had to stop reading and just sit and laugh as the resolution unfolded itself.
Dunces is an absolute gem of a book. It was a pleasure to read and I am sure I will revisit it again. Do yourself a favor and read this where other people will see you laughing, take note, and go find a copy for themselves.
N.B. I think it uncommonly sad that Dunces was published posthumously and encourage you to read up on Toole’s tragically short life.