Book Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

This year’s resolution (one of them) is to read. I have two lists and on one of them is the title A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

I am still trying to decide whether I liked it, or just enjoyed it. 

Dunces is the story of Ignatius J Reilly, intellectual, bachelor, unlucky in many ways, and an absolutely insufferable elitist. He lives with his mother, who believes he is god’s gift to the world, and his “work” is to write a manifesto, work which advances at around a paragraph a month. The opening event is a drunken, low speed car crash (she is driving) that results in a financial burden beyond what the aged woman’s fixed income can cover. She badgers her son into finding work and so we, the readers, follow him from catastrophe to catastrophe.

On the one hand, he is relatively unlucky. On the other hand, he is supercilious, self righteous, overly educated, a pathological liar, obsessed with ruining an abrasive old college flame, puritanical and simultaneously prurient, grandiose, domineering, and would be pleased at the preceding volume of five dollar words. He is a truly awful human and he is not the only one in the story.

If you have ever watched Seinfeld, or The office, or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you know the characters: awful people, being awful to each other, to differing degrees based on the target audience.

But what struck me was how clearly I saw the author in his main character.

All I had on Toole going in was a photo of the young man, the knowledge that his mother badgered a prominent professor into reading his (very messy) manuscript, and that he killed himself at the age of 36.

While Toole didn’t look like Ignacious, he was able to, within the character, take himself to his potential extreme. I wondered, as I read rants of ire and fantasies of persecution, value judgements on and about everyone in the vicinity, and just general foolishness, if Toole was writing a character that represented what he feared he was.

I have spent the past several years (and will likely spend several more) trying to find the line between overweening pride and false humility. I have a constant low level fear that I am not, in fact, as likable, sexy, interesting, thoughtful, competent, attractive, wise, kind, or intellectual as I think I am. Reading Ignacious’s internal monologues, rants, and the words Toole chooses to describe his actions and mannerisms, I recognize the fears of a brilliant and broken mind, as they look when taken to the extreme.

Immediately after finishing the novel, I read Toole’s wikipedia page. Sure enough, though the physical appearance and eccentricities are borrowed from a colleague at college, many of the life experiences and world views are taken from Toole’s own life. Toole suffered from paranoia, depression, an overbearing mother, and a father rapidly descending into dementia. I can’t imagine what his internal life must have been, to be so perceptive, such a brilliant story teller, and at the same time convinced of the opposite.

Or perhaps, because I’ve read the misadventures of Ignatious J Reilly, I can.

A Confederacy of Dunces is oddly compelling, though I did have to remind myself that the novel was written specifically to lampoon and entertain. There is no deep meaning, that I’m aware of, only a parade of flawed and unsympathetic characters participating in unexamined lives.

I think I enjoyed it. No, I know I enjoyed it. I’m not sure I liked it, but I definitely enjoyed it, and as a romping story where the only wit or skill lies in the hands of the author, I can recommend it.