Steve's Reviews > A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
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Jul 30, 2007

it was ok

Am I being unduly harsh giving this a mere “It’s OK”? Maybe. To hear some people describe it (even people I usually correlate well with), this book is a laugh-scream riot. Hopes grow even higher when you hear the story about Toole’s mother who, after his suicide, finally gets the thing published, then sits back to watch the prizes pour in. What I viewed as a miss may have been because the bar was so high. It could be, too, that I’m just not predisposed to dysfunctional characters, all bloated with self-importance. The protagonist (or antagonist depending on how you see him) is Ignatius J. Reilly. He’s decidedly offbeat, which is all well and good, but I just didn’t think he was funny. Not all guys with yinged-out hair are brilliant physicists either, much as we might surmise.

That’s just my opinion. Plenty of people disagree. It was a long time ago that I read it, so factor that in as well. Maybe guys like George Costanza have now gotten me used to whiny, self-centered anti-strivers as sources of humor.

I sometimes wonder why certain works are so polarizing. In this case I think lots of people saw a big misanthropic id running roughshod and had to laugh. Others of us were just annoyed. (Do I sound like a terrible curmudgeon right now? I just did a check on my sense of humor and found that it generally goes for sarcasm, irony, and even shtick. Must just have been this brand where I didn’t.)
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02/27/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 62) (62 new)


message 1: by Kelly (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:56AM) (new)

Kelly I'm SO glad to hear your review of this because I had NOT read it due to a lack of time but kept hearing how great it was. Your review reminds me of when I had to read "On The Road" by Jack Keroac in college and I kept thinking, "Am I the only one who thinks this jerk is a self-important womanizing druggie? And this is a GOOD thing?"

Sometimes writers confuse the anti-hero with the jackass. Perhaps this was just a prime example.


message 2: by Belinda (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:56AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Belinda I didn't find this novel a "laugh riot." I would not classify it as a "comedy." (Tragi-comedy? Dark comedy? maybe.) I do, however, consider it a great American novel, and have re-read it many times over the years. Perhaps an inherent love of Southern fiction helps, I don't know. Ignatius is *definitely* a jackass, and not at all likeable. But still I read, and especially after Katrina, it's such a love-letter to the old city of New Orleans, and she's such a major character, that I can't *not* love it.

I'm getting ready to re-read it again soon, before Hollywood ruins it forever, as I'm SURE they will, with an ill-advised movie version. Ugh.


message 3: by Steve (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:58AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Steve I just read a quote by Goethe that said something like "All writing is confession." I think that applies even more to reviews. It's funny, but now that you've hinted that this one can safely be left off your list because I panned it, I want to make sure I've given enough context to be fair. Me justifying an unusually low rating for a book so many others liked so well is one thing. Seeing a friend stay out of the water because she saw me swimming against the current is something else. Of course, you have Belinda's take on it now, too, so the onus for your decision is not all mine.

Just to make sure I've got all my confessions, caveats, and context in place, here are a few more points to consider. (I'm not back-pedalling here so much as disclosing biases.)

1. It was long enough ago that I don't remember other potentially more redeeming characters in the story. (Including, as Belinda has pointed out, New Orleans herself.)
2. My attitude toward buttheads as central characters at the time I read it may have been hard-nosed. I was probably girding myself for battles in the work-a-day world, and didn't have much tolerance for such a negative role model.
3. I'm curious enough to reread a few random pages to verify my opinion.

My guess is that you'll want to wade in yourself one day, Kelly. Disagreements can be enticing.


message 4: by Steve (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:58AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Steve I have very little doubt that Belinda is right about Hollywood's treatment of a book like this.


message 5: by Belinda (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:58AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Belinda P.S. I also loved Melville's Bartleby, while my sister *hated* him. There is something (though not nearly as dignified) of Bartleby in Ignatius.


message 6: by Kelly (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:58AM) (new)

Kelly And *this* is why I'm loving this site! Hearing both takes on it certainly does help when reading reviews. I have always feared reading reviews of Paid Reviewers because they seem to stick to one assessment of a book and rarely deviate (the lemmings) so I have relied on friends to help me assess a potential read.

Thanks, friends. I love the input.


message 7: by Christopher (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:20PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Christopher Staley I may be tossing my two cents into the well after the wishes have gone dry here, but one critical difference between On The Road and Confederacy of Dunces, is that Keroac paints his jackass as the great yada yada of the new American blahblahblah; whereas Ignatius is clearly playing the Fool. (A better description, I think, than anti-hero.)


message 8: by Sean (new)

Sean Your all a bunch of idiots, Confederacy is a comic masterpiece. I don't know what more you expect from a comic novel. It is brilliantly constructed and hilarious. It builds to a stunning climax that really delivers. By the way Kerouac is also one of the great American authors. Maybe you should all go read Oprahs book of the month.


Christopher Staley Uh Sean, you're kind of opening yourself up when you call everyone on the discussion idiots, and yet don't know the difference between "your" and "you're." It's not a big deal. I'm sure they'll teach you next year in 8th grade.

Your argument that these books are good because they are "masterpieces" or "great American authors" is essentially saying, "you should like them because you're supposed to like them" - an arguent that can only be described as utterly vapid.


message 10: by Sean (new)

Sean Nice use of vapid, I had to look it up. I don't call the books masterpieces because I am supposed to, but because they are profound works of art. I don't believe that all so-called "classic" authors are great, but I am glad I touched a nerve.

Sieg Heil Grammer Nazi, good day sir.


Belinda I believe you mean "grammar."


message 12: by Sean (new)

Sean fair enough, but my point remains.


message 13: by Rob (new)

Rob THE PERIOD GOES OUTSIDE OF THE QUOTATION MARKS, FOOL.


message 14: by Belinda (last edited Jan 22, 2008 10:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Belinda Commas and periods belong within quotation marks, unless immediately followed by a parenthetical reference. If it had been a colon or a semicolon, you would have been correct.


Steve There are times when it's fair to call someone an idiot, but in response to an opinion on something as inherently subjective as humor, not so much. Oh wait, now I get it. Sean was showing us how funny it can be to play the lout, like Ignatius. Good one.

I'm tempted to reread parts of this book. We just got back from an enjoyable first trip to New Orleans. Maybe, as Belinda suggested back in August, the character of the city itself is one of the book's pleasures. I'll also grant that a sense of humor can change in 20 years time. I'm sure we've all seen old sit-coms or satirical pieces we thought were great back in the day, but now think are lame. Maybe the converse can apply (though I suspect upgrades are less common).

Regarding the other thread, its to bad these goodread window's do'nt have grammer and spell checking. I, for one, feel vulnerible at times.


message 16: by Sean (new)

Sean You seem like an intelligent person Steve, and I respect your opinion. In reference to the books humor (or lack thereof), I have never read a book in my life that has made me laugh out loud (in public!) so consistently and sincerely as Confederacy. But as you said humor is in the eyes of the individual, and while I don't understand how a person could not enjoy this book, I cant dispute it.

The characters may not be as developed as those of Dostoevsky or Steinbeck, but they have a certain innocence and warmth that make them endearing. I don't believe that Ignatius is some kind of anti-hero that the reader is supposed to despise. Ignatius is like a brilliant child with no social skills. He is oblivious to how others view him, and that is why his personality is forgivable.

The structure of the book is what makes it so unique and brilliant. Yes, several authors have created novels that tell many stories simultaneously that end up being connected in the end, but few with such poignancy or wit. Most books that I have read that are supposedly comic, end up being shallow in the end, and never really develop into anything interesting. Confederacy never loses its momentum. One of the reviews I read called the book a "grand comic fugue" (I think thats how it was phrased), and thats exactly what it is. The book is contrapuntal in structure. There are a few simple themes that exist in contrast to each other, that are the foundation for the entire novel. It is an incredible achievement to create any work of art from something so simple. Then to create a novel that is constantly engaging and coherent is truly astounding.

Beyond the brilliant structure, the book is able to make a touching, heartfelt picture of New Orleans. I have read Confederacy at least three times and every time I am more and more blown away. Despite my passionate love for this book I guess its not really fair to call you all idiots. I think this is one of the great American novels of the 20th century. If you don't see it, to each his own.


Steve Now there's some commentary with some meat on it. That first serving was like one of those little crawfish appetizers. This one was a big savory jambalaya. Thanks, Sean.

I'm still not sure I can appreciate all of what you're saying about structure--I lack the education--but you have made me curious enough to train a different lens on old Ignatius. If I view him as child-like in his honesty and simply unaware when it comes to his self-centered ways, I may end up seeing him the way he was meant to be seen. I won't just do it because a bunch of smart people tell me I should, though. (Maybe I'm a little like Toole as far as that goes, though I suspect my different drummers are playing a happier beat.)


Christopher Staley Overwrought meat, maybe. Perhaps he misunderstood the old chestnut about how writing ought to be like a woman's skirt, and thought it meant it should be frilly with nothing underneath.

I'm kidding - gotta jab back a little - I actually mostly agree with what Sean says, especially about the structure. You see the threads coming together from the very beginning of course, but you're not exactly sure how.

I actually hopped on this thread to defend the book. But apparently by not starting my thread with "your all idiots," failed to get noticed.



message 19: by Sean (new)

Sean You should learn the power of inflammatory language, it is a beautiful thing (just kidding). I tend to be overly emotional, but that comes with being an artist. If you mean to imply that confederacy is without depth, than I would have to disagree, but nevertheless I appreciate your sense of humor.


Steve This has been both insightful and inciting. It's interesting how even though you both agree that the book is great, you still get your digs in against each other. Are you from different denominations of the same Dunce religion? Seen another way, if Kilgore's real motive behind his dis was to get the line about the skirt in, that alone was worth it.

To paraphrase Sean, inflammation can be fun. Any other topics where we can somewhat respectfully disagree?


message 21: by Rob (new)

Rob sean better watch out or ill give him something to be "emotional" about.


message 22: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I like your schtickhaus sense of humour.


Garima So I was going through our mutual books. Anyway, I also didn't like it much. I was exhausted after some 200 pages. I laughed..alot, but after some time hahaha turned into haha then hmmmmm.


message 24: by Ali (last edited May 26, 2013 11:12AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ali I have quite nostalgic memories of Confederacy, but as Garima has mentioned on which I'll elaborate, when I get past the emotional factor and truly think about my two reading experiences with the book, I seem to remember that both times, while I did believe it was riotous for the first three fifths, I ultimately breathed the smallest sigh of relief when it finally ended. I still think it's a fine novel and will return to it someday, but, in the opinion of my four years younger (and stupider, so I may change my mind) self, it is too long and at a certain point becomes weighed down by its own bloat.


Steve Garima wrote: "So I was going through our mutual books. Anyway, I also didn't like it much. I was exhausted after some 200 pages. I laughed..alot, but after some time hahaha turned into haha then hmmmmm."

Looks like you and Ali agree that this one didn't have great staying power. That's my vague recollection, too. (It was three decades ago that I read it.) Thanks for the feedback, Garima! It's always a pleasure hearing your thoughts.


Steve Ali wrote: "I have quite nostalgic memories of Confederacy, but as Garima has mentioned on which I'll elaborate, when I get past the emotional factor and truly think about my two reading experiences with the b..."

It's funny that you mention how different the four year younger version of yourself might be, Ali. That's much more the case with me and the 30 year younger man who read this with so little appreciation for that kind of humor. If I were to reread it, I might wonder why that younger self didn't get what was funny, at least for the beginning, pre-bloated part.


message 27: by Paula (new) - added it

Paula Your review hit the mark. Terrific. I certainly fall in the "annoyed" category. This seems to be a love it or hate it book.


Steve I was just talking about this one yesterday with my son-in-law. We agreed that Ignatius was annoying in less funny way than, say, Larry David. Love it or hate is right. I bet you could even show that statistically with star distributions.


message 29: by Lisa (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lisa Very nice review, Steve!
It goes a bit in another direction than the others, and therefore, I will tell you the story of how I came to borrow The Dunces in the library today. Having worked myself up into a state over the fact that I am incapable of loving another Pulitzer winner, Marilynne Robinson, and her novels on Gilead and Home, I browsed the shelves to find something to read that would make me fit in better with the general opinion. The first book that jumped out and imposed itself was Robinson's third installment of my pet hate, Lila, and being a good masochist, I took it.
But I thought I must have something to counterbalance that odd impulse, and the title Confederacy of Dunces was just irresistible in the context. So I chose that as well, hoping to find it more unambiguously rewarding. And now, checking reviews, I realise most books generate all kinds of reactions... It's what books do.

So now I am curious to see what the dunces will do for me. Having very low expectations (Just this: Please be better than Gilead), I might end up analysing my sense of humour as well in the end! We'll see. But I feel much less bad about not liking Robinson.

And sorry for writing this astronomical digression!


message 30: by Katie (new)

Katie With you all the way, Steve. I didn't find it very funny either.


david Artie Lang's favorite book. Seriously.


Jeffrey Keeten But he has his own statue Steve just like Michael Jordan and Ernie Banks. Though I will say that the sculptor did lighten him by a few hundred hot dogs. Not the Chicago Dog either which is still my favorite hot dog on the planet. Thank goodness Ignatius is a fictional character or he'd be suing you for a character assassination. :-)


Steve Lisa wrote: "Very nice review, Steve!
It goes a bit in another direction than the others, and therefore, I will tell you the story of how I came to borrow The Dunces in the library today. Having worked myself ..."


Thanks for a great comment, Lisa! Turns out I like both digressions and astronomy (though I know the elliptical comment thread brought on by your review of Contact is the spur for your own use of the word here).

I've actually had Gilead on my to-read list for years, but so far it's never been on the short list. Maybe that's for the best. If I had read it, though, I'd be able to offer you an opinion about how effective a counterbalance this dunce book would be. As a general statement, I suspect Toole's work correlates negatively with a lot of books.


Steve Katie wrote: "With you all the way, Steve. I didn't find it very funny either."

We may be in the minority, Katie, but it's not a tiny one. I'm encouraged by the fact that you have a well-developed sense of humor applied to other books.


Steve david wrote: "Artie Lang's favorite book. Seriously."

Looks like it was up there pretty high on your own list, too, David. This is one of the few books I'm curious to reread (at least partially) to see if the version of me in my 20's was at odds with the current me.


Steve Jeffrey wrote: "But he has his own statue Steve just like Michael Jordan and Ernie Banks. Though I will say that the sculptor did lighten him by a few hundred hot dogs. Not the Chicago Dog either which is still my..."

Boy, Jeffrey, the references to MJ, Mr. Cub, and the Chicago Dog have just about won me over to your way of thinking. What scares me, though, is a sudden realization that Ignatius is a little too similar to a real life character who recently proposed making it easier to sue media members for those assassinations you mentioned.


message 37: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Steve wrote: "david wrote: "This is one of the few books I'm curious to reread (at least partially) t..."

Didn't you re-read the book before writing your review?


message 38: by Tina (new)

Tina I didn't care for this book either. I never understood why it received good reviews


message 39: by Trish (new)

Trish Hated this, however much of it I listened to. But you were much more eloquent.


Webster Wade Being a native New Orleanian or living here for an extended period of time (at least a decade) is perhaps a prerequisite to thoroughly understanding and appreciating this book.


Jeffrey Keeten  photo ignatius-statue_zps808f4407.jpg

The slender ode to Igantius. I always pictured him much larger.


david Steve, I find it curious, how similar we are today as we were yesterday and the day before.


Steve Ian wrote: "Didn't you re-read the book before writing your review?"

You’ve studied way more philosophy than I have, Ian, so you must know that famous line by Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”

So all reviews are impressions from a certain time. All are mutable. Surely, no man reads the same dunce book twice. Even though the final book edits have been in place for a long time, the final man edits may never be.


Steve iStability Memph=isuy/ wrote: "[otv2h16+? Qhwu"

Qhwu indeed!


Steve Tina wrote: "I didn't care for this book either. I never understood why it received good reviews"

Glad to see I’m in good company, Tina. But then there’s plenty of good company on the other side, too.


Steve Trish wrote: "Hated this, however much of it I listened to. But you were much more eloquent."

I appreciate hearing you say that, Trish, since I know you to be a broad-minded reader. I used to think Ignatius was a caricature of boorish delusion, but the recent rise of certain powerful figures now makes me wonder.


Steve Webster wrote: "Being a native New Orleanian or living here for an extended period of time (at least a decade) is perhaps a prerequisite to thoroughly understanding and appreciating this book."

Your point is well-taken, Webster. And I see you even have the fleur-de-lis to back it up. Somebody else years ago said that New Orleans is a very major character in this book, which sounds consistent with what you’re saying.


Steve Jeffrey wrote: "
The slender ode to Igantius. I always pictured him much larger."


Yeah, the cover of my paperback edition has him as a heavier looking guy.


Steve david wrote: "Steve, I find it curious, how similar we are today as we were yesterday and the day before."

I do, too, David. In fact, I'll occasionally read reviews here where I've forgotten that I read them before, then think of a part to comment on, only to realize as I scroll down that I'd not only read the review before, but made the exact same comment. Whether that's consistency or Alzheimer's, I couldn't say.

There must be counterexamples to what you're saying. But then tomorrow I may disagree. ;-)


david Steve, awful review. Btw, I think Mr. Heraclites was the one who once said, " Character is fate and fate is character."


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