Staff Pick: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces

(Grove Press)

by John Kennedy Toole

I despise the clichéd "laugh out loud funny" description. That said, if ever there was a chance that I'd use that phrase, it would be while discussing John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces. In Toole's brilliant opus, we meet Ignatius J. Reilly, the overeducated, overfed, and underemployed New Orleans behemoth whose worldview and anti-Enlightenment rants will indeed, sigh, make you laugh aloud. A few examples from the ever-thoughtful, misguided Reilly himself:

On literature: Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.

Advice to the elderly: Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!

On movies: My eyes can hardly believe this discolored garbage. That woman must be lashed until she drops! She is undermining our civilization.

On party decor: This is a floral abortion. Dyed flowers are unnatural and perverse, and I imagine, obscene also.

On doctors: Heaven knows where these salacious medical people have been probing. Would you mind leaving for a moment while I inspect myself to see whether I've been mishandled?

Admonishing a smoker: Please blow your smoke elsewhere. My respiratory system is, unfortunately, below par. I suspect that I am the result of a particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner.

And as ridiculous as Reilly's worldview is, we see a certain brilliance to his observations on the shortcomings of society and its inhabitants.

As we follow his efforts to find -- and hold -- a job to help his long-suffering mother keep him in Dr. Nut soda and Big Chief writing tablets, we are introduced to a parade of outrageous characters who, for all their stereotypical attributes, only add to the ridiculousness of Reilly's plight. There's Gus Levy, the owner of Levy Pants, where Reilly tries to rally the factory employees to stage a coup against incompetent office manager Gonzalez. And is promptly, and justly, let go. Next comes his foray into food service as a costumed hot dog vendor for Paradise, a fictitious version of NOLA's signature Lucky Dog. Not the best job for one who has 1) an insatiable appetite, and 2) disdain for other humans. Then there's the impotent police officer Mancuso, whose sadistic chief forces him to dress in elaborate costumes and wait in the bus station men's room to catch would-be lawbreakers. Doing what? You figure that one out.

Moving down to the French Quarter, we meet Lana Lee, owner of the seedy bar Night of Joy, which employs disgruntled janitor Jones and entertainer Darlene, who keeps things exciting with a lounge act that includes a bird. Yes, a bird. Don't overlook Reilly's out-of-town nympho of a former girlfriend Myrna Minkoff, or the flamboyant Dorian Greene, who falls victim to Reilly during a hedonistic party. A host of other outrageous characters round out the ensemble, though the city of New Orleans itself becomes the novel's best character by far. All of these over-the-top degenerates contribute to the insane conclusion of Reilly's escapades in the Crescent City.

Sadly, the author of this amazing work took his own life in 1969 at the age of 32. The manuscript was found by his mother, who took it to Walker Percy, then a teacher at Loyola University. Percy reluctantly read the work, instantly recognized its merit, and got it published. Thank goodness he did. Sadly, Toole didn't live to see the results of his effort. Perhaps he knew all too well what Jonathan Swift meant when he wrote the line from which the book takes its name:

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.

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