Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: A Confederacy of Dunces

A colleague of mine back when I taught at SUNY Fredonia raved about this book. He and I usually have similar tastes.  At the time, over thirty years ago, I picked it up and read the first chapter and it did not grab me.  I figured I would read it at another time.

Since the original recommendation, every few years or so, I hear or overhear someone speaking glowingly about A Confederacy of Dunces.  The most recent such conversation took place in the locker room of my gym.  A fellow was going on and on about how hilarious the book is. Then a couple of weeks ago I went to a used book sale at a local library and saw A Confederacy in the Classics section of the sale.  I bought it and figured I would give the book another shot.

The title, I discovered, is derived from a Jonathan Swift quote: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."  This factoid appears right before the novel begins and is preceded by pages of reviewers' testimony from reputable publications attesting to the  quality of the book.

I can't agree.  The book is about a very intelligent, but irreponsible and inconsiderate, iconoclast. Ignatius Reilly.  The author does not intend to make him out to be anything other than he is.  Reilly is a lout, has an inflated sense of self worth, a mooch, and all around trouble maker.  John Kennedy Toole, the author, depicts Reilly as a genuine, if clever, pain.   While it is never stated explicitly, Reilly considers himself besieged by a confederacy of dunces and he, Reilly, to be the only true genius.

My feeling was, after only a few pages, "enough already".  The character and story does not really go anywhere. We read about Reilly as an incompetent and irresponsible jerk when he works in a clothing factory, and then as a hot dog vendor, as a son throughout, and occasionally as a sort of boyfriend to a bohemian woman he met when he was in school in NY.

Yes, there are clever quips from Ignatius, and the literary/historical references are impressive, but for me the laughs were infrequent, the story not there, and I felt no sympathy at all for Reilly or really any of the characters save perhaps the fellow referred to as "Jones" throughout.

Interesting and sad fact about the book is that it was written in the early 1960s, but was not published until 1980.  Toole tried to get the book published throughout the 60s and was unsuccessful. In 1969 he took his life.  His mother, subsequently, pestered people to read the manuscript and finally got a professor to do so.  He, Walker Percy, loved the book and worked towards publishing it.  The edition I have lists Toole as the sole author with an introduction by Percy.  I have seen more recent editions of the book where the authors are listed as both Percy and Toole. Don't know the backstory on that.

In sum, I can't recommend this book, but a whole slew of others can and do.  Yes, I think we are all at times the victims of a confederacy of dunces.  Ignatius Reilly though is a victim of his own silly narcissism and laziness.

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