Oh, Ignatius J. Reilly – if I never hear of your pedantic, slovenly antics again it shan’t be soon enough.
A Confederacy of Dunces was hard to get through. It was recommended to me (in addition to being on my list) after I visited New Orleans, as the book takes place there, and while references to NOLA streets and landmarks inspired nostalgia, that was the only redeeming aspect of this book. I believe, in some ways, this was the author’s intention, and if that’s the case he succeeded tenfold.
The book starts off with a wonderful Forward written by Walker Percy, describing how this novel came into his possession, and went on win the Pulitzer. The author, John Kennedy Toole sadly committed suicide at the delicate age of 32. Up until that point, the story had been rejected countless times, and in a final desperate attempt to see his work realized, Toole’s mother insistently presented it to Walker Percy. Percy was understandably disinterested in a novel pushed on him by a dead writer’s mother, but out of kindness gave it a cursory glance. According to him, he “read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.” Evidently, to Percy, it was, and it eventually awarded John Kennedy Toole with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
I hate to say it, but I agree with the rejections. Where Toole truly does shine is in his ability to create a repulsive, unlikable main character – he does such a god job I could hardly bear to read another page. The obscenely priggish Ignatius is unlike anyone you’ve met before – thank goodness. He is highly educated, but wasted every dime of the education his mother paid for theorizing and philosophizing about the most inane, meaningless fantasies. His arrogance is only slightly countered by his ignorance, soliciting about 5% of our capacity to empathize with this slob extraordinaire. There are approximately two moments where we are called to care, and they don’t begin to touch the 404 pages of pompous racism, sexism, and sheer egotism that defines our disturbingly annoying main character.
The story follows Ignatius from one pathetic encounter to another, in a butterfly effect storyline involving other argumentative, barely tolerable characters, all culminating in one enmeshed fiasco. I finished the book because I didn’t want to give up, not because I cared what happened in the story. I will, however, give it the credit it deserves, in that I will never forget the character archetype, and if I happen to see an obese, mustachioed man waddling down the street, possibly pushing a hot dog cart, I will certainly ask myself, “What would Ignatius do?”