A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
“Novels are often able to capture reality very well, much better than in the world we see on Facebook, where, ironically, it’s about real people. Fiction, with its invented characters, gets much closer to reality. It’s about people as they really are, with all their problems and quirks. On top of this, the parallel world of books, film and television is always available. Even when the whole world is falling upon you, this is the one thing that keeps standing. A world that doesn’t change, that is nice and safe.”
— Marieke Nijmanting in Flow Magazine
I read this quote in Flow Magazine recently, when I was half way through reading A Confederacy of Dunces, and I couldn’t believe how apt it was. Despite the fact that this book is hilariously demented and the anti-hero’s every movement is a complete debacle, it was about a person as he was, with all of his problems and quirks, in a parallel world.
I’d heard about this novel a long time ago, but never knew what it was about. Until I read about the Ignatius J. Reilly statue that resides in New Orleans while I was reading 111 Places in New Orleans That You Must Not Miss. I figured if he was a big enough fictional character in a city full of characters (fictional and real), he must be worth reading.
John Kennedy Toole’s novel was finally published over a decade after his suicide, after his mother pushed writer Walker Percy into reading it. It follows the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a fat, lazy, unemployed 30-year-old man still living at home with his mother…
“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 moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.”
It paints a picture, doesn’t it? Doesn’t sound like a character that embodies a “hero” of sorts. And yet, I absolutely adored him! He may be unemployable, eccentric, incredibly eloquent and well educated, and yet completely deluded, but he’s a character that I really related to in parts. At the heart of it, he’s struggling to find his place in the world. That’s partially his own fault, sure, but it’s a universal struggle I think most of us can relate to.
His misadventures in his home city of New Orleans are hysterical, and magnificently written – the articulate insults, the comedic disbelief at his own misfortune, the other characters, it’s all fantastic. Part of the novel is told through the Journal that Ignatius is writing, his indictment on the world. It chronicles his attempts to find employment at the behest of his mother, first in an office, then as a hot dog vendor on the streets of the French Quarter. This part had me in stitches, because it was just so perfectly written and so vivid…
But back to the matter at hand: Clyde’s vengeance. The vendor who formerly had the Quarter route wore an improbably pirate’s outfit, a Paradise Vendor’s nod to New Orleans folklore and history, a Clydian attempt to link the hot dog with Creole legend. Clyde forced me to try it on in the garage. The costume, of course, had been made to fit the tubercular and underdeveloped frame of the former vendor, and no amount of pulling and pushing and inhaling and squeezing would get it onto my muscular body. Therefore, a compromise of sorts was made. About my cap I tied the red sateen pirate’s scarf. I screwed the one golden earring, a large novelty store hoop of an earring, onto my left earlobe. I affixed the black plastic cutlass to the side of my white vendor’s smock with a safety pin. Hardly an impressive pirate, you will say.
However, when I studied myself in the mirror, I was forced to admit that I appeared rather fetching in a dramatic way. Brandishing the cutlass at Clyde, I cried, “Walk the plank, Admiral!” This, I should have known, was too much for his literal and sausage-like mind. He grew most alarmed and proceeded to attack me with his spear-like fork. We lunged about it the garage like two swashbucklers in an especially inept historical film for several moments, fork and cutlass clicking against each other madly. Realizing that my plastic weapon was hardly a match for a long fork wielded by a maddened Methuselah, realizing that I was seeing Clyde at his worst, I tried to end our little duel. I called out pacifying words; I entreated; I finally surrendered. Still Clyde came, my pirate costume so great a success that it had apparently convinced him that we were back in the golden days of romantic old New Orleans when gentlemen decided matters of hot dog honor at twenty paces.
He actually has many run ins with his fellow New Orleanians, and they don’t get any less hilarious as the novel plows on; in the end, I felt like he was just a misunderstood and slightly deluded man, who wanted things to just be right and couldn’t quite work out how to make them so. He just wanted to be left alone to write and express his thoughts. I get that; I can relate. But don’t take my word for it – pick up a copy for yourself here and enjoy a truly entertaining, unforgettable read!