When asked to name my favourite film or album, I enter a full-scale tilt, as I struggle to even compile my top ten. However, it’s a very different story when the same question is put to me for books. In this case, the answer is easy: “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole, a work of true (but tortured) genius.
Set in New Orleans in the early 1960s, this is the tragicomic story of Ignatius J. Reilly, an extraordinary slob, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas, all rolled into one. He is a monument to sloth, rant and contempt; a behemoth of fat, flatulence and furious suspicion of anything modern; an intellectual whose numerous failings are blamed on the goddess Fortuna (“you wretch, you degenerate wanton, you vicious slut”).
Our hero may well be the most disgusting lead character ever, a grown man still living at home with his mother, passing his days documenting his disdain for the twentieth century on his Big Chief tablets, while lying in his pit on sheets stained with sweat and fouler fluids. He rarely leaves the house, only to run errands with his mother or go to the cinema, where his despair at the crass modern movies being shown shows no bounds:
What degenerate produced this abortion?
They should all be gassed!
Filth! How dare she pretend to be a virgin. Look at her degenerate face.
When circumstances force Ignatius to seek employment, he embarks on a series of farcical escapades in the French Quarter. His path through the working world is populated by a series of colourful characters: Santa Battaglia, bowling friend of his mother; Claude Robichaux, potential new husband for Mrs Reilly, constantly on the lookout for “Communiss”; Darlene, a stripper with a talented cockatoo; Miss Trixie, the ancient secretary whose desperate attempts to retire are always thwarted; Dorian Greene, the flamboyant gay blade; Lana Lee, the sinister owner of the Night of Joy; Angelo Mancuso, the inept policeman forced to wear increasingly ridiculous disguises; and Burma Jones, the African American night club porter.
However, the two strongest secondary characters in the novel are the women closest to Ignatius. Irene Reilly is his widowed mother, who first panders to Ignatius’ every whim before being persuaded that her son should make better use of his considerable intellect and expensive education by getting a job. Ignatius reacts badly to his mother making a stand:
My mother is currently associating with some undesirables who are attempting to turn her into an athlete of sorts, depraved specimens of mankind who regularly bowl their way to oblivion.
It’s not your fate to be well treated. You’re an overt masochist. Nice treatment will confuse and destroy you.
The other formidable female in Ignatius’ life is Myrna “the minx” Minkoff, a Jewish beatnik from New York, whom he met in college, where they terrorised their professors:
Pray to him, you deluded fool, you “anyone for tennis?”, golf-playing, cocktail-quaffing, pseudo-pedant, for you do indeed need a heavenly patron. Although your days are numbered, you will not die as a martyr (for you further no holy cause), but as the total ass which you really are.
Their backgrounds and views could hardly be more different, but they share a lengthy correspondence, featuring his contempt for her sacrilegious activity and her psychosexual analysis of his actions. Again, Ignatius does not hold back:
This liberal doxy must be impaled upon the member of a particularly large stallion.
What elevates this book to true brilliance is the perfection of Ignatius, who remains one of the all time great comic characters. Toole has achieved the impossible here, creating a loathsome individual whom we nevertheless love. Ignatius is a monster whose excesses horrify and appal, yet equally entertain and enthral. Each job he takes rapidly escalates into a lunatic adventure. While working at Levy Pants, he leads a strike of black workers, naming it “the crusade for Moorish dignity”, then decides that the company should take a more authoritarian line with its distributors:
We are a busy and dynamic organization whose mission needless effrontery and harassment can only hinder. If you molest us again, sir, you may feel the sting of the lash across your pitiful shoulders.
“A Confederacy of Dunces” was a deserving winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, though the award was tinged with sadness, as John Kennedy Toole committed suicide before ever seeing his great novel published. The reading public should erect a statue to Toole’s mother whose persistence finally persuaded the literary world to take note of her son’s masterpiece.
If you have read this book, then I am sure you will already be smiling at the memory of the larger than life, grotesque, unforgettable Ignatius. If not, waste no time in making your purchase, for “the day before you is fraught with God knows what horrors”, and this might just be the funniest book ever written.