Laura's Reviews > A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
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Jun 20, 08

bookshelves: american-lit

Easily the funniest book I’ve ever read. A masterful fugue of high and low comedy, the novel traces the exploits of Ignatius J. Reilly, thwarted author, philosopher, and medievalist, as he is tragically forced to divert energy from the writing of his magnum opus — a comparative history that will astonish a benighted world — in order to get a job. Interlaced through Ignatius’s epic employment journey (including stints as a hot dog vendor and filing clerk) is a cast of New Orleans eccentrics teetering on the underbelly of humanity. Thwarting Ignatius at every turn are his nemesis, former classmate Myrna Minkoff, with whom he exchanges frequent and furious letters, and his antagonist, the hapless Patrolman Mancuso, who has the audacity to mistake Ignatius for a vagrant.

The minor characters are drawn with a riotous precision reminiscent of Dickens; actually, the way they all come together at the end in a sort of circuitous unity is even more reminiscent of Dickens. However, no character ever conceived could match the genius that is Ignatius. A more pompous, ungrateful, obnoxious windbag is hard to imagine, yet Ignatius captivates partly because he IS so appalling. I made the mistake of reading this on an airplane once, and people three rows away turned around to see who was shrieking. It’s the only novel that has brought me to actual tears of laughter. And appropriately so, as beneath every stream of comedy is an undercurrent of tragedy, and the world — even the motley world of New Orleans — holds no place for a uselessly over-educated, dysfunctional misfit like Ignatius.

It’s interesting to note that John Kennedy O’Toole committed suicide in 1969 without ever seeing his work published. His mother discovered the manuscript after his death and finally saw it published in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. A few years ago I attended a panel discussion with several of O’Toole’s former colleagues and friends, who said some of the descriptions of Ignatius strongly resembled one of their colleagues. Someone in the audience asked if that colleague ever recognized himself in the work, and the friend replied, “Oh no — he’d never read this sort of novel!” In fact, neither would Ignatius.
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