It is hard to believe that nearly forty years have passed since the release of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Published in 1980, it is the only book to receive the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. That it was written and set in the early to mid-sixties is even more startling. It is still funny to the point of madness.
There is something fitting about its displacement in time. John Kennedy Toole created in his anti-hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, as a one-man assault on the modern age.
Like the Buddha, Ignatius is a sheltered thinker suddenly thrust into the realities of a cruel world. There the similarities stop. Toole installs in Ignatius the mouth of a philosopher – a poet even – to broadcast his hare-brained, half-baked fantasies of grandeur. Still, there is a bent logic in his plans, a savage justification of his existence.
He doesn’t see the world through the eyes of a compassionate leader but an educated twit. Through those eyes, Toole paints an unsentimental portrait of the radical student movements of the sixties taken to absurd lengths. Then he lays before the laughing reader the simple truth that education and intelligence are not one in the same.
There is a sadness in the laughter that isn't easy to place. In retrospect, it is hard to know whether it comes from the tragedy of small souls being buffeted by a life that is hard in any age, or it is the tragedy that surrounds the book itself.
Toole was shopping the book to publishers in 1967. After some initial enthusiasm by Random House, the manuscript was rejected. A despondent Toole quit is studies and his job and began drinking heavily. After an argument with his overbearing mother, Toole took a cross-country trip from New Orleans to Flannery O’ Conner’s house in Georgia via California. In Biloxi, Mississippi, Toole ran a hose from the exhaust pipe into his car and killed himself in March of 1969. Random House had rejected the book on the grounds that it “wasn’t really about anything.” Which goes to show you the book editors aren’t any more clever than the rest of us.
A Confederacy of Dunces is about everything. Ignatius’s ranting “medievalist” philosophy is a tract against globalization, the free market and the empty, radical chic intellectualism of the early sixties which has since has hit absurdities that Toole never dreamed of. By siding with their causes, Ignatius makes them as absurd as his. That it was even published is in itself almost absurd.
Toole’s mother began pestering Walker Percy – then on the staff of Tulane University – about getting into one of his classes. She’d written a few chapters of a novel, but her son had completed one – a large one. In the days before caller ID, Dr. Percy was helpless against her onslaught. When asked why he would want to read her dead son’s book, she replied, “Because it is a great novel.”
So it came to pass that the force of nature called Thelma Toole was standing in Percy’s office holding the smudged carbon copy of her son’s heretofore unpublishable manuscript. Percy reckoned he’d read five pages or so, and declare it bad enough to stop in good conscience. At first it was not so terrible, then he became intrigued by the deranged Don Quixote tipping a flatulent lance at the modern world’s windmills of theology, decency and bad taste.
The story opens with an unlikely incident of police harassment by the meekest and least corruptible patrolman in the New Orleans Police Department. What unfolds is a comedy of errors and ambitions arising from Ignatius being forced to get a job (and then another and another) in a cruel unforgiving world that has been going awry since the Enlightenment. It is a world filled with small people trying to make their small way in a modern society. All of who are trying to get out of the way of Ignatius, self-appointed monk careening on the edge of sainthood, a revolting martyr in a world that has elevated vulgarity to a democratic virtue.
Had the book had been set in New York, San Francisco or even Nebraska, Ignatius might have faded into his background or worse, had nothing from which to revolt. But it wasn’t. It was New Orleans, that gumbo of old Southern traditionalism and port city hedonism. The Southern Babylon is the perfect catalyst for Ignatius to explode into the world: Because a mad man is nothing without followers as well as enemies.
His rants are fueled by long distance debates with his oversexed radical soul mate, Myrna Minkoff. Closer – much closer – to home is Ignatius’s widowed mother Irene, whom he terrorizes but can’t live without. The rest of the cast is the best the New Orleans has on offer: strippers, pornographers, good cops and bad, homosexuals, lesbians, capitalists, Protestants, Catholics, Y’ats, Doris Day movies and frazzled parakeet that can only be guilty of being itself.
Remarkable for a white writer of his day is Toole’s characterization of Burma Jones, the porter at a hole-in-the-wall bar cum strip club in the Quarter. The whites have him over a barrel: He is working for below minimum wage yet cannot quit without being arrested for vagrancy. Hidden behind his sunglasses and cigarette smoke, Jones can’t endlessly indulge in whim, ambition and fancy of the whites around him. He is trying to survive, forced to be clever and resourceful in a world impossibly stacked against him.
It is a shame, then, that John Kennedy Toole gave up on his bizarre creation after only three years. Tragic that he never saw his comic masterpiece published in 1980, and the Pulitzer Prize awarded it in 1981. Toole would be 80 now, had he lived. So it is sadder still that he never looked back on a large body of work and see A Confederacy of Dunces take its place in the canon of Modern Southern Literature.
Originally appeared in Delta Magazine