on July 17, 2000
This book is quite simply a comic masterpiece, a novel brimming with original characters, absurd situations, and at its heart a blustery, vulnerable mama's boy named Ignatius J. Reilly. He is one of the most startlingly original characters in modern fiction, and his efforts at hitting the job market after his mother smashes their car will leave you in stitches.
A word on the history of the novel is worth mentioning here. The author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide in 1969, and his mother found the hand-written manuscript in her son's papers. She brought them to a publisher, who dreaded having to read even a portion of the work and to notify Toole's mother that it stunk. Instead, he was blown away by Toole's draft, and the rest is history. The novel earned him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, and it is universally hailed by critics.
Trying to summarize the plot is impossible - the book cannot really be categorized. Ignatius is an over-educated oaf who stays home filling his writing tablets full of his offbeat musings on ancient history, which he plans to organize and publish some day but which presently reside all over his bedroom floor. Rome wasn't built in a day he reminds himself. He cites in footnotes, as authority for some of his offbeat opinions, papers he had previously written and hand-delivered to the local university library for inclusion into their archives. He watches dreadful tv shows and movies, howling at the screen with a mixture of delight and loathing at the teenybopper drivel, and in the privacy of his room his self-gratification is performed while imagining visions of the old family dog. And wait til you see him out in public, getting a series of odd jobs, including a filing clerk at Levy Pants (with very innovative filing techniques to avoid crowded file space) as well as a costumed hot dog vendor wandering around the French Quarter in a pirate costume. All the while he begins work on his latest opus, The Journal of the Working Boy.
There is a latent sadness to the plot, for while you are laughing out loud at Ignatius, his bowling-addicted mother, and the motley crew of skillfully drawn supporting characters, you sense that he will never really belong anywhere, and that he realizes his outcast status with his innate intelligence. Perhaps the author felt the same way in 1969, leading to his own suicide.
However, at least Toole did leave us A Confederacy of Dunces, a novel which reveals more with each rereading. Keep it on your shelf, and every now and then pick up the book to any page and marvel at the absurdity of Ignatius's grandiose ramblings, read exerpts of his bizarre historical writings, and revisit his comic efforts to organize a worker's revolt at Levy Pants. The list goes on and on. There is no work of litereature like it I know, and my only regret in reading Toole is the sorrow felt in knowing the tremendous body of work that was lost when he ended his life.
on March 17, 2000
When I first saw the cover of this paperback in a Georgetown, DC, bookshop a few years ago, I was hesitant to buy it. Simply put, the cover is goofy, and does not do this masterpiece any justice. I am so grateful that I ignored my initial instinct, as I don't remember ever reading a funnier book in the English language than the late John Kennedy Toole's life achievement, nor is there a more memorable character in American literature than I. J. Reilly. The work deserves a 6 star rating! "A Confederacy of Dunces" is more than just incredibly funny, however. It is unusually poignant, gut-wrenchingly sad, and an admirable observation piece on a rather decadent and seemingly lost segment of our society sitting at the mouth of the Mississippi River. I have visited New Orleans three times since 1994 for varied reasons, and the city apparently has not changed in the least since Mr. Toole's late 1960s rendition. His characters continue to stroll and struggle along Bourbon Street and Canal Street, and their troubled spirits infuse every alley and cave of the French Quarter. Just like the district surrounding St. Peter's Square in the city of jazz, Ignatius J. Reilly is out of step with the rest of America. In spite of his repulsive and grossly comical physical presence, he believes in aesthetics and real meaning, in what he perceives to be the truth. For this reason, he is a true literary hero, like Don Quixote, Cyrano de Bergerac and the Good Soldier Schweik before him. One final note: before you buy this book, think about cancelling all your appointments and engagements for the two or three days that follow. They, along with eating and sleeping, undoubtedly will be totally neglected until you finish this 400 page tour de farce.
on October 10, 2002
Reading a highly popular, arguably classic, cult favorite with a fresh eye and without preconceptions is not an easy task. I expected Ignatius J. Reilly to leap off the page at me. I wasn't disappointed. On the first page, outside a staid department store in New Orleans, Ignatius in his usual grotesque costume of green hunting camp and too small flannel shirt is awaiting his mother innocently enough until a policeman decides he is a vagrant and tries to arrest him. A crowd is quickly engaged by his steaming objections and loud protestations. Ignatius is at his best when hollering for help. When his weary mother makes an appearance, "Mother!" he called "Not a moment too soon. I've been seized."
We quickly meet friends and denizens not quite on the underside of New Orleans, but leaning that way. Ignatius is a force of nature that needs to be fed, nurtured, and kept on course not only by his long-suffering mother, but any citizen who happens to cross his path. If Ignatius is left to his own devices, he is like a loose pinball, except a pinball never screams for help.
Ignatius, who is the epitome of pseudo independence and ingratitude, actually is fearful of being left alone. When his mother, for the first time in living memory, decides to have a night out, Ignatius is piteous, "I shall probably be misused by some intruder!" he screamed.
For the first third of the book, I was highly indignant at Ignatius: his selfishness, his arrogance and his ingratitude. Gradually, I became fond of him and then fearful for him. He is underscored with tragedy; he has a vision of a world not of his making and it threatens him. Somehow Mr. Toole gathers up all the threads and the end is not chaos as I feared, but everyone seems to get just what they deserve. I was pleased, and I think you will be too.
Born in New Orleans in 1937, John Kennedy Toole earned degrees at Tulane and Columbia Universities and was pursuing a teaching career when drafted in 1961. He thereafter returned to New Orleans, where he wrote the novel A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. Although the novel received initial interest from the publishing industry, it was ultimately rejected--and the failure of the book fueled Toole's depression. Toole committeed suicide in 1969, leaving the unpublished manuscript in his mother's New Orleans home. When she discovered it, Thelma Toole began a campaign on behalf of the novel that resulted in a 1980 publication. Instantly hailed by critics, it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, has sold millions of copies, and is generally considered one of the great comic masterpieces of the 20th Century.
DUNCES focuses on the life of Ignatius J. Reilly, a paranoid hypocondriac of gargantuan proportions who spends his life in a bedroom of his mother's house, ruminating on his health, the impending collapse of civilization as we know it, and writing notes for what he expects will be the ultimate literary statement on the Middle Ages--a return to which he advocates in no uncertain terms. But a series of comic disasters conspire to force Ignatius out into the world in search of the very thing he most dreads: a job. In the process he tries to impose his worldview upon every one he meets, and the characters that crisscross his path are vibrant, outrageous, and as memorable as Reilly himself.
There is, for example, LeRoy Jones, a black man with plenty of attitude, who finds himself blackmailed into working for an extremely dubious night club at below minimum wage--for Lana Lee, a "Nazi female" who is involved in illegal pornography--who employs Darlene, a wannabe stripper who has trained her pet bird to tear her clothes off while she bumps and grinds. Incompetent police officers, gyrating old ladies, factory workers, elderly men with grave concerns about communist infiltration, and screaming homosexuals dance across the pages, each of them memorable, all of memorable, all of them laugh-out-loud funny.
New Orleans itself is a memorable character in the novel, teaming with diverse ethnic communities, social snobbery, and awash in sex and alcohol, as ribald as any of the fictional characters creates. And, I might add, portrayed with remarkable accuracy. Toole not only captures the wild array of accents typical of the city, he captures the soul of the city iself, New Orleans as it existed in the world before Hurricane Katrina altered it forever, a portrait that is now poignant for the fact that what has been may never come again.
This is indeed a brilliant novel, one that I tend to break out whenever I'm so blue I think I'll never laugh again. I always do, one page after another, great big belly laughs, small snickers, strangled chortles. It's just an amazing novel, memorable, fascinating, original, and very, very readable. One of my favorites, and strongly recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
on April 16, 2000
I actually liked the book. It's so life-like. I know far too many people that are just as awful and obnoxious as the charecters in it. Very vivid, very depressing. The only character I would really want to spend time with was the cloud of smoke that is Jones. The book was worth it just for Jones.
My main problem with the book was that it failed to make me laugh. This wouldn't be a problem normally. I don't expect books to be laughfests as a rule, but everyone said "Oh, it's soo hilarious! I was cracking up the whole time I read it!" So I had to read it for a literature class. My teacher said it is a masterpeice. It won the Pulitzer Prize! So I was expecting to laugh this time. But I couldn't. It was just too depressing. I told my teacher I didn't think it was funny. He asked my classmates if they thought it was funny and they all said yes. My teacher quoted Jonathon Winters, who said that the scariest person in the world is someone without a sense of humor.
So maybe I don't have a sense of humor, but I find it difficult to see the point of laughing at miserable people who make each other more miserable. There are also a lot of sex jokes and a lot of jokes about passing gas, but I can get that from Beavis and Butthead.
My teacher also said the whole book was about scorn. It is supposed to make you feel beter about yourself because you're not as horrible as the people in the book, but I think my ego was okay without having read this book.
But I liked Toole's style. The dialogues and descriptions are wonderful. The book is great as a description of the burgeoning chaos of the early sixties. It just didn't make me laugh.
on September 7, 2000
As if there weren't enough reviews of this book, I'll add mine: In a word, wonderful. The "protagonist" is one Ignatius J. Reilly, a fat, pompus windbag who is over-educated, but refuses to work, preferring to stay home and drive his mother nuts while writing his never-ending treastie on the awfulness of the modern world -- "modern" meaning anything since early Medieval times! Thanks to his mother running into a building while under the influence, Ignacious has to go to work. You can just about imagine the kind of worker he is, versus the kind of worker he really is! You wouldn't want to leave this guy alone with a typewriter, or even a hot-dog cart, for a minute.
John Kennedy Toole does not just depict Ignatius's delusions, but brilliantly depicts everyone else's delusions, too. His novel shows us that none of us operate in a concrete reality -- our perceptions are deluded because of our beliefs, worldview, past experiences, etc. This book should be assigned, or at least recommended, reading for any college course dealing with post-Modern thought.
on July 25, 2007
I have looked through many of these reviews, and no one has yet explained why many reviewers think it is the best book ever, and many think it is the worst book ever. Here is my attempt.
Why some people laugh till they choke
Ignatius is a physical comedian. He follows in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Victorian classic "Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the dog," the Marx brothers, the Pink Panther movies ("The Return of the Pink Panther" is the best), and Mr. Bean. So if you laughed uncontrollably at Chief Inspector Dreyfus's facial tick because he wanted to kill Clouseau, if you laughed when Chaplin kicked the policeman in the pants and ran, or when Mr. Bean accidentally popped a bag of vomit over a sleeping passanger's face, then you are more likely to enjoy this book. It also helps if you were an obedient student and learned all those vocabulary words in English class, because Ignatius is a very learned, pompous slapstick comedian.
What proof do I have of this? Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) once made a documentary about the aspects of physical comedy (made in 1992, the TV series was called "Funny Business," the episode was called "Laughing Matters", the relevant sections on Youtube are parts 4 and 5). In that lecture, he said that the personality traits of the physical comedian are the following.
1. He is alienated from the society around him: Ignatius stays in his room in his mother's house.
2. He is childish: Ignatius thinks his mother should still support him at age 30.
3. He has to fight with ordinary objects: Ignatius cannot even ride in a bus.
4. His body can be humorous by itself: Did I mention Ignatius is obese?
5. He is uncivilized and cannot or will not conform to social rules: Ignatius's first act in the book is to hit a policeman in the head with a rolled up sheet of music.
6. He is a threat to respectable people: On first seeing him, the policeman immediately tries to arrest him. Even a strip-tease club wants to get rid of him.
7. He mocks authority and politeness: Ignatius is rude and heaps scorn on everyone.
8. He spreads confusion: Ignatius causes the climactic chaos of the book.
9. ... I cannot tell you the ninth quality without giving away the ending. But the book conforms to it as well.
Why some people hate the book
While there has been some smirking and name calling, it is obvious that some who hate the book are quite literate and are not at all dunces. ACoD haters include those who say they like Catch-22, Ground Hog's Day, and other humor classics. Remember, many publishers rejected it, and even Walker Percy didn't realize it was good until about page 50. Most good books sparkle long before that point. Why are its qualities sometimes hard to see?
Although Ignatius is a physical comedian, his humor is not lightning fast like Charlie Chaplin or the Marx brothers. It is hard to quote a funny line, because each line in isolation isn't that funny. They are only funny in the total context of the story. Catch-22 is a book that is hundreds of pages of variations of the same joke. If you liked the basic joke, you love the book. If you hated the joke, you hate the book. With ACoD, if you recognize Ignatius as a slow-burning physical comedian early on--and you find his stately slapstick funny--you will love every page of the book. If you either fail to get the character at all or do not find his version of slapstick funny, you will hate the book.
The book was the first attempt to publish by the author, and it is bit rough. The repetition of metaphors and phrases can be annoying, especially if you are not already laughing. Ignatius is described by animal metaphors repeatedly. He says the same phrases repeatedly. There are very few one-liners by any of the characters. The complicated multi-story plot unfolds slowly. If you are not already in on the joke while this is going on, it is painful. If you are, it is delicious. That is my explanation for the love/hate reviews.
A further theory
I am writing a scholarly article about this book. I have searched the scholarly literature high and low and have not found any other writings on my idea. I have thought about explaining my main concept here, to establish a claim of priority, but I have decided against it. Instead, I will give a brief explanation of a side claim, to demonstrate some of the drift of my thinking. So here it goes.
Ignatius complains throughout the book about Fortune's Wheel. In medieval thinking, everyone was attached to a wheel of fortune. Sometimes you were up and had good fortune; other times you were spun down into ill fortune. Good things happen to bad people and vice versa, so luck does not follow worldy ideas of justice. Or to put it plainly: Life ain't fair.
But in the book, Ignatius himself acts as fortune's wheel. When he arrives at the Night of Joy the second time, Lana and George are in good fortune, and Burma Jones and Darlene have ill fortune. Through Ignatius, their luck is reversed. When Ignatius appears at Levy Pants, Mrs. Levy is controlling both Mr. Levy and Miss Trixie. Through Ignatius, Mr. Levy gets the upper hand, Mrs. Levy has lost power, and Miss Trixie can finally retire. This spherical man acts as a catalyst, spinning the fortunes of the other characters. When Mancuso first interacts with Ignatius, his luck turns bad, but in the end, Mancuso has triumphed, and Lana is off to prison, where she will need some consolation of philosophy.
Boethius wrote in the Consolation of Philosophy that fortune hands out luck that we cannot understand in this world, but which is part of the overall plan of divine justice. Instead of divine justice, Ignatius rolls his circular form through the world, and in his farcical chaos he rights wrongs of this world and brings worldy, poetic justice to the characters. He is fortune's wheel.
Note from December 2008: In the article by Richard Simon (1994). "John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy: Fiction and repetition in A Confederacy of Dunces." Texas Studies in Literature & Language, 36(1), page 113, in a footnote, Simon argues that Ignatius represents Fortuna herself. My claim is slightly different: that Ignatius is her wheel.
on December 9, 2005
A friend loaned me a copy of this book over twenty years ago, telling me that this was a novel I simply must not miss reading. Not quite believing his enthusiastic praise, I opened the book and was introduced to the gargantuan, flatulent, self-important, arrogantly pseudo-intellectual person of Ignatius J. Reilly. By the end of the first paragraph, I was intrigued. By the end of the first scene, in which he nearly causes a riot in front of D.H Holmes, I was hopelessly hooked. In the decades that have passed since that first reading, "Confederacy" has steadily ascended my list of all-time favorite books, becoming more deliciously funny with each reading.
Ignatius is an unforgettable character. Ensconced in his ramshackle room, strewn with Big Chief tablets filled with invective toward the twentieth century and his longing for the good old days of the Dark Ages, he brews his indictment of modernity and of anything and everything he considers lacking in "theology and geometry". Unfortunately for him, his mother's drunken driving brings the threat of legal action when she demolishes part of a building and he is faced with the appalling need to Go To Work. Needless to say, the working world isn't quite prepared for this Don Quixote in a hunting cap.
Along the way, there are a number of equally priceless supporting characters, each a gem in its own right. The hopelessly inept Patrolman Mancuso sniffles his way about the seedier parts of New Orleans, in his outrageous "undercover" costume of the day, sadly hoping to arrest some "suspicious character". Miss Lana Lee, of the quite inappropriately named Night of Joy bar, provides, um, charity work for the orphans, discreetly wrapped in plain brown paper and collected by a local hoodlum. Then there's Jones, who plots his revenge against Lana's tyranny as an employer from within a cloud of blue cigarette smoke. All of these and others are superbly woven together in this grand comic tale, their stories and fates drawn together by Fortuna's wheel, as Ignatius might say.
As others have remarked, Toole's suicide pre-empted what likely would have been a wonderful literary career. An unpublished author at his death, Toole's only other work is a short novel called "The Neon Bible", written while he was in his teens. That book is sufficiently inferior to "Confederacy" that I have never bothered to buy my own copy. However, I am now on my fourth copy of this novel, and expect it to continue to be a book I revisit time and again.
Most highly recommended.
on November 29, 2005
I will dispense with any plot summary and focus primarily on the heart of the book- Ignatius Reilly, a character not without precedent but one without peer.
Ignatius's medieval fixations are a valuable clue to understanding this novel. Despite being written in prose, and set in 20th century America, this novel is best read as a Shakespearean comedy. Indeed, many reviewers have already described Ignatius as Falstaffian, and that comparison is not without value. However, that is only a starting point. I feel delving into Ignatius's personality in more depth, rather than settling for a blanket comparison, is the best way to understand the protagonist of the novel.
A Confederacy of Dunces is not a happy novel. It is often extremely funny, but there is defintely a melancholy feeling underlying the whole text. This is uncharacteristic of modern comedy, where even in moments of tension the tone is still light. Classical comedies, in contrast, need only a positive ending, and can be dark in tone- I say Shakespearean because I admit that those are the only classical comedies I have read.
Why is the novel so sad? That is difficult to define. While Ignatius faces many problems, he is never in real danger of anything more than loss of money or dignity (both of which he has little to lose anyway). The pathos lies in Ignatius himself. Ignatius (and herein lies his uniqueness) is a compedium of the many unpleasant personality traits intelligent people are in danger of developing. Need proof?
We can start with the fact that he is overly proud of his education. He displays the smug love of his own knowledge that has led to his feeling superior to the uneducated masses around him. As other people haven't paid him the respect he feels he deserves, he feels like a misunderstood genius. I'm sure we've all encountered someone with an ego so large they attribute all their problems to other people's inability to understand them. This is only a partial list, but Toole does a better job showing then I ever could telling (and show, don't tell, is one of the building blocks of good writing).
While we may be annoyed when we meet people like this in real life, Ignatius is portrayed sympathetically. He clearly had great potential, and throughout the book Toole constantly reminds us that Ignatius has his Master's, is an educated man, yet has come to (latest plot development). We mourn Ignatius's wasted potential, at the same time we pity him. He wishes for a life with no challenges, which means he would never grow as a person (pun about his weight gain most definitely intended).
Here, at last, we come to the beauty of Toole's characterization. Despite his squandered potential, sad life, and miserable circumstances, these struggles are the only way Ignatius can grow as a person. Indeed, Ignatius does mature throughout the novel, but only slightly. He is too set in his ways, too far gone, to become a new man. It is to Toole's credit that he realizes this. Not only does he draw an absurd man with a true writer's talent, he accomplishes the much more difficult task of making him change over time without losing that realism.
Looking beyond the character of Ignatius, Toole's whole novel is exactly that- the absurd, the unlikely, the bizarre, drawn realistically, and with compassion. Although the book has slight flaws (and what book doesn't?), Toole has successfully created an unique character, then skillfully portrayed his life. In the simplest analysis, Toole has something new to say, and he says it well. What more reason could one need to read a book?
on March 19, 2006
Personally, I am dumbfounded at some of the claims of the more, shall we say, uptight reviewers found on this page. To hold an opinion which is contrary to most others' is, of course, perfectly fine, but to claim that those who like the book are simply following suit, that we are simply seeing the "emperor's new clothes" so as not to be thought stupid, is an affront to the intelligence of the thousands and thousands of readers who have enjoyed this book. A few things; this is not a comedy in the way an Elmore Leonard novel, or a Douglas Adamas novel, is a comedy. The comedy is not outright -- that is to say that this is not a novel built around jokes and one-liners -- but that the comedy comes from the characters, the dialogue and the overall outrageousness of its situations. It is also a misconception that a great main character must be indentifiable with the reader. The point of the novel is that Ignatius is NOT identifiable to a normal person, just as he cannot identify with normal society. Were his convictions easy to indentify with, was his position on society easy to swallow and his speech more coloquial he would not be Ignatius J. Reilly. He is, in fact, one of the snidest, most self-deluded characters I have ever read had the pleasure to read. He treats his mother terribly, his medieval philosophies sound like the ramblings of an imbecile, and his excuses and complaints could, if they were realized in life, drive someone insane. It is his good-natured intentions, though, his self-delusions that his shortcomings are in fact blessings and the sheer rediculous nature of his pompousness that makes him such a comic gem of a character. That we who find this to be true are being compared to the peasants in the age old fable of the emperor's new clothing seems to say a wealth about those who make such claims. Is it not enough to state one's opinion? Must one put oneself on a literary pedestal, insulting the intelligence of anyone who disagrees with you? Because you didn't "get it" does not mean that there was nothing to "get." We got it. And we who did are in agreement; those new clothes the emperor's sporting are looking damn good.
In summary, there is a reason this book won the Pulitzer Prize and it's not because the judges were too scared to admit they didn't like it. It's clever, well-written, fast-paced, absorbing and absurd.
Oh, and it's extremely funny, as well.