A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is a book I had never heard of or seen at my library until I saw it on the checklist for PBS’ The Great American Read (see previous post for more details). When I looked into this mysterious book, I was surprised to discover it had won the Pulitzer back in 1981—12 years after Toole’s death—and that the novel had only been published the year before.

Set in New Orleans, Confederacy tells the story of Ignatius Reilly: a rotund, 30-year-old man, who is described by Grove Atlantic as a “flatulent frustrated scholar deeply learned in Medieval philosophy and American junk food, a brainy mammoth misfit imprisoned in a trashy world of Greyhound buses and Doris Day movies.” Ignatius has a Master’s degree, but he refuses to work until he is forced into it by his mother in order for them to keep the house.

With all this in mind, I jumped into Confederacy. I wanted to know why this book was considered a great American read, and why it won a Pulitzer.

…I still haven’t figured out why yet…

I got to chapter five…and…well…I couldn’t go any further.

I had to motivate myself to read on because this book is essentially about nothing. A lazy 30-year-old who thinks he’s superior to everyone around him is forced to seek employment—that’s it. That’s the story, and I’m sorry to say, it’s not interesting.

Ignatius Reilly is supposed to be funny, but he’s a jerk to everyone around him; he treats his mother like crap, and he talks down to his employers, going so far as to tell them they’re idiots to their face. He’s not a likable character, and I usually like unlikable characters!

The New York Times said this book was “A masterwork…the novel astonishes with it’s inventiveness…it is nothing less than a grand comic fugue,” so I was expecting Toole’s work to be humorous, but in the five chapters I read (mind you, chapter five ends on page 111, so I was well into the book), there was only one instance where I laughed, and I have a great sense of humor! I love to laugh.

The scene that made me chuckle occurs when Ignatius is asked by his “idiot” employer to sit on a stool:

Ignatius squatted lower and lower until his great buttocks touched the stool, his knees reaching almost to his shoulders. When he was at last nestled upon his perch, he looked like an eggplant balanced atop a thumb tack.

“This will never do. I feel quite uncomfortable” (p 73).

He then falls off the stool, and everything descends into chaos.

I will admit, just reading this again made me chuckle. It’s truly a humorous scene. I love Toole’s use of figurative language here, and I wish there were more like it in the other chapters I read. Maybe I quit too soon, but when nothing is going on in the story, and I have to force myself to continue on…it’s just not worth it.

I will not give A Confederacy of Dunces a rating since I only read the first five chapters. I will say that the writing is good (though Ignatius tends to scream his dialogue), but good writing doesn’t help when the story and the character’s aren’t enjoyable.

What do you think? Am I dunce for giving up too soon? Has anyone read this all the way through and enjoyed it? Let me know!

The next book to read on The Great American Read list is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. If you’d like to join me in The Great American Read challenge, feel free to print off your own checklist here.

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