Larger than life…and death

A man writes a novel. He can’t get it published. Despondent, he takes his own life. Afterward, his mother takes the novel to a famous novelist and forces him to read it. Against his will, he falls under its spell. With the author’s help, the novel gets published. And wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A movie plot, you think? No. The unvarnished truth. Which is often indeed stranger than fiction.

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the most bizarre, yet insanely intelligent tragicomedies of all time. The book’s hero is like none you have ever come across before. Ignatius Reilly, a grotesquely obese slob, prone to room-clearing flatulence, frequent masturbatory interludes, and even more frequent invective-spewed diatribes is one of fiction’s only characters who out-Falstaffs Falstaff. He spends most of his time locked in his room writing feverishly on over-sized notepads. Suffice it to say, Ignatius has a lot to say about everyone. And it’s virtually all bad. He rails against Protestants, Catholics, homosexuals, heterosexuals, psychoanalysts and more. He waxes profound on modernity’s intrusion into virtually everything. He takes no quarter and gives none.
Locked in his room, of course. When his mother forces him to get out and go to work, he embarks on a series of jobs that all end in what can only be described as hilarious tragedy. To detail the specifics of his travails would be to deprive readers of surprise after surprise. Take the Fiction Fortune Hunter’s word for it. What can go wrong will go spectacularly wrong.

Toole sets his fantastic fable on the streets and in the out-of-the-way neighborhoods of New Orleans. All pre-Katrina of course. Toole was a resident of the Big Easy himself, and one definitely has to wonder how much of Ignatius’s wanderings coincide with the author’s own life and times. He graduated from Tulane and went on to get a master’s degree from Columbia. But, after a stint in the army,
(he was drafted, of course) he returned to New Orleans and penned his oversized comic novel while roaming the French Quarter and living with his parents. In 1960, Simon and Shuster came close to publishing his book, but at the last minute decided against it. Depressed that his novel would never find its way into print, Toole quit his teaching job at Dominican College and began to spend more and more time with alcohol and various denizens of the crescent city. In 1969, while returning from a trip to the West Coast, he stopped near Biloxi, Mississippi and ran a garden hose from his car’s exhaust pipe into his window. A suicide note was left on the dash board addressed to his parents. His mother never divulged the contents.

One of the joys of reading novels is that they sometimes introduce us to characters we’d never meet (and often never want to meet) in our own lives. Most of us would rather not meet Ignatius Reilly in real life. But spending time with him between the pages of John Kennedy Tool’s A Confederacy of Dunces is something you will remember, and perhaps treasure, the rest of your days. For all who have ever thought of themselves as “different” from the rest of the teeming gaggle, I point you toward Toole’s choice of a quote that begins his prizewinning novel. It’s from Jonathan Swift:

“When a true genius appears in the world,
you may know him by this sign, that the
dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

One Response to “Larger than life…and death”

  1. Interesting…and I agree pretty much with everything. Keep up the good work…I will definitely be back soon

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