Monday, February 2, 2009

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole
“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.”
So enters in the first paragraph of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, a most memorable character, Mr. Ignatius Reilly.

Ignatius is a “slob extraordinaire”, a lunatic on almost every level, a “fat Don Quixote” who at thirty years of age and nine years of school later, is jobless and still lives with his mother in a quiet little city named New Orleans. You'd think a character like that would be hard to like, but surprisingly by the end of the book I found him, and the laughable cast of characters that make up this farce to be quite endearing.

When Mr. Reilly’s long-suffering, slightly drunk mother gets in a car accident, our anti-hero’s life takes an unfortunate turn. She insists he leave the comfort of his yellow stained sheets, his screaming at the television, his castigating the world on big writing tablets that he keeps hidden under his bed, and get a job to help pay the damages. Fortuna has indeed dealt him a serious blow. What of his valve? What of his lute playing? But find a job he must, and we know of course, it will not end well.

A stint at Levi Pants, where “when he was at last nestled upon his perch, he looked like an eggplant balanced atop a thumb tack”, he leads the factory workers on an all out revolt for the “last crusaders of Moorish dignity”. His second attempt as a hot dog vendor also ceases as quickly as it begins, where he complains: “These carts are like Chinese puzzles. I suspect that I will be continually pulling at the wrong end.”

Woven within these promenades into the working world is a tapestry of endearing, and almost equally as obnoxious, secondary characters. Poor, always sick Patrolman Mancuso who couldn’t arrest anyone if he tried; Miss Trixie, the million year old secretary at Levi Pants who’s never allowed to retire no matter how bad she wants to; Miss Lee, the Nazi-like commandant of the Night of Joy Bar; Jones, one cool cat, floor sweeper who utters the word “Ooo-eee. Everythin in the Night of Joy firs rate” every chance he gets; and the stripper Darlene and her murderess cockatoo.

A complex cast in a complex, almost Dickens type of novel. I liked it, even though like Seinfeld, it was really about nothing of importance. Just a snapshot of life in New Orleans in the 50’s. A clear picture. The characters and scenery were so well described, I felt like I was there. John Kennedy Toole never lived to see it developed into the grand art it has become. I wondered as I read how closely his life matched Reilly’s. Was he too enclosed often in his room in the house that he still shared with his mother, writing furiously about the ails of the world around him?

It's a shame we will never know for sure. I would've liked to read a sequel to Reilly's exploits with his nemesis and girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff. Instead I must be content with a good chuckle, and a long sigh. Indeed, I hope my valve survives it. 4 Stars

***This was the Spotlight Book for January. Did anyone else get it finished? I'm curious what others thought of the book. Apparently you either love it or hate it. No inbetween .


Danielle and Jason said...

I've been curious about this book ever since my friend told me about the author's tragic history. He committed suicide long before the book was ever published, supposedly because of a dispute with his mother. It is still sitting on the shelf, however, but definitely on my list...

Lula O said...

It talks in the forward how his mom got the book published. What a troubled young man, and I often wondered how close him own life mirrored the main character, although there's no way he could've been so ridiculous.

It was a hilarious book.