It took me twenty years to finish Toole’s book. Someone in college gave it to me, shocked that I hadn’t already read it, and I practically threw the book away after reading only about thirty pages, believing (I confess to you ashamedly today) myself to have been identified by the gift horse as the Ignatius Reilly character. Perhaps if I had been more accurate, I would have realized the only person who had identified me as Ignatius was myself. But to say we’re stupid when we’re twenty years old is a truism, so we’ll just skip on by that and say that twenty years later, I did see what everyone liked about the tragic Toole.
First, if you don’t know, Walker Percy, one of U.S.’s great writers, wrote the introduction to the book, explaining how it came to be published—and to cult classic status. Toole committed suicide in 1969 before the novel ever met human eyes. Toole’s mother decided in 1976 to take it to Loyola University where Percy taught. As one might imagine, explains Percy, “if ever there was something I didn’t want to do, this was surely it: deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read the manuscript that she said was great and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared scarcely readable carbon” (7). Much to Percy’s shock, though, Confederacy turned out to be not just okay, but very good—in fact, also very funny, but at the same time, he reminds us, very sad, not least because we remember as we read it that the book will be the only John Kennedy Toole novel that we ever read.
But what a novel Confederacy of Dunces is, most of all because the characters are drawn so intensely. The protagonist, the aforementioned Ignatius Reilly, who wears a bizarre New Orleans version of a Holden Caulfield Hunting Cap, is morbidly overweight and behaviorally challenged. He complains constantly about his stomach in times of stress: “My [pyloric] valve closed on the streetcar,” he says to his mother, explaining why he looks like he’s about to die—and why he didn’t get a job (70). He lives alone with his mother, who he badgers because he believes she drinks too much—he accuses her constantly of clandestinely storing booze in the oven. Early in the story, Mrs. Reilly has a car accident that she must pay for, which requires Ignatius to go to work—a turn of events he finds immensely distasteful, since he believes he is writing important works of literature in his bedroom. He gets a job at Levy Pants as a file clerk, where he systematically throws away the files because he’s too fat to reach the lower drawers and where he tries to organize the factory workers to rise up against the management (but fails because he’s so offensive). Other equally absurd characters figure into the story including a dancer and a doorman in a French Quarter bar as well as friends of Mrs. Reilly’s. They’re so aptly drawn, when I was reading the book, I kept feeling as though I saw them on street corners, saying to myself, “now that guy there, he could be Ignatius.” It’s not very often that I read a book so vivid.
Another fascinating part of the book is that it truly is a novel of place. Like Walker Percy’s novels of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, this book truly evokes the New Orleans-ness of the city with the descriptions of the place around the seedy strip club where Darlene and Jones work:
Twilight was settling around the Night of Joy bar. Outside, Bourbon Street was beginning to light up. Neon signs flashed off and on, reflecting in the streets dampened by the light mist that had been falling steadily for some time. The taxis bringing the evening’s first customers, Midwestern tourists and conventioneers, made light splashing sounds in the cold dusk. (29)
Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, was housed in what had formerly been an automobile repair shop, the dark ground floor of an otherwise unoccupied commercial building on Poydras Street. The garage doors were usually open, giving the passerby an acrid nostrilful of boiling hot dogs and mustard and also of cement soaked over many years by automobile lubricants and motor oils that had dripped and drained from Harmons and Hupmobiles. The powerful
stench of Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, sometimes led the overwhelmed and perplexed stroller to glance through the open door into the darkness of the garage. (164) What’s funny about it? Well, first of all, Ignatius is the biggest of the buffoons, and it’s clear that Toole most wants us to laugh at him. But, just as Percy points out in the introduction, it’s hard not to infer some autobiographical sense to the novel—outlandish as it is. After all, it’s about a depressed young man living with his widowed mother, so we—or probably more accurately I should say I–feel pretty sad about laughing at Ignatius. Mrs. Reilly herself is pretty silly too, though. However, then, for much the same inferential reasons, I find myself feeling sorry for the long suffering Mrs. Toole. But the many absurd characters—even the racistly drawn African American, Jones—are very funny because of the absurdity of their behavior. I have the sense that Toole must have had that sense of the world, that people, in his view, really do act stupidly—that they (like Flannery O’Connor’s Aunt said, have certain things that they just have to “go and do.”).