Review: A Confederacy of Dunces

It is impossible to read a A Confederacy of Dunces without some nostalgia for the New Orleans that existed before Katrina. I pulled this book off my mother’s shelf not too long ago, intrigued by its ratty paperback cover and the yellow stamp on the lower left corner, “1981 PULITZER PRIZE for FICTION.” This is a dark, humorous book, which follows Ignatius J. Reilly, the pompous buffoon of a protagonist, while he clashes with everyone around him in his attempt to be the noble everyman of his medievalist imagination. The book is set in a gritty, poor, seedy New Orleans in places that are dirty, rundown, creaky, and ramshackle, populated with characters who are an essential part of the NOLA scenery.

I felt as though I were reading two novels when I read this book: one in which I read about and grew to detest Ignatius Reilly, and one in which I observed the racial, sexual, and socioeconomic politics of New Orleans and considered their implications post-Katrina.

The narcissist view of A Confederacy of Dunces:

At the start of the book, Ignatius J. Reilly is merely absurd and awkward: he is fat, dresses strangely, and bosses his mother around. He is 30 years old, does not work, and lives at home, perennially mooching off his welfare-dependent mother. Ignatius holds a Masters degree from Tulane, which his mother paid for with insurance settlement money from his grandmother’s death, and sees himself as a great, educated Everyman. He spends hours in his dank, musty room, scrawling copious notes in his Big Chief writing tablets, producing intelligent yet unintelligible prose; scores of these are scattered haphazardly around his room, all comprising the Great Book that he has been working on for years.

Though Ignatius is clearly meant to be a pompous and absurd character, he is terribly sad, too. Ignatius faces failure after failure with each new grand scheme – from working in an office and attempting to stage a worker revolt to starting a queer political party while working as a hot dog vendor — and he struggles with delusions of grandeur. His attempts to write his book are no better. His only ally is in Myrna Minkoff, who seems as delusional as he is, and who, in the end, comes to his aid. According to the Foreword, the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces was brought to Walter Percy at Loyola University by John Kennedy Toole’s mother, after Toole had committed suicide in 1969. Though I don’t know much about Toole, specifically, the character of Ignatius Reilly becomes an increasingly vicious satire over the course of the novel. I have to wonder, given the short biography of the author, if Reilly is meant to be an exaggerated and bitter caricature of Toole, himself?

Generally, I like books with anti-heroes, especially if they are detestable and sympathetic. Humbert Humbert of Lolita is a perfect example. But Ignatius J. Reilly simply becomes, well, just detestable. I had a long argument with friends who’d recently read this book about whether it was a great book even though he was so awful, and I kept arguing that yes, yes, it was still great because the writing was so fantastic – but at that point I hadn’t reached the end of the book. I realized that Ignatius is not someone I could stand to be in a room with, because he lacks the capacity to even pretend to be compassionate.

The socio-political reading of A Confederacy of Dunces:

If New Orleans has become sanitized – in nearly every way – by the clean-up following the receding floodwaters after Katrina, the New Orleans of A Confederacy of Dunces is anything but sanitized. The novel meanders through the various districts of central New Orleans, and embraces each seedy and poor aspect of the city, one by one. With the exception of interactions between characters, the novel passes no judgement on lifestyle or livelihood, and we meet drunks, policemen, strippers, pornographers, gay men, lesbians, black men, vagrants.

Poverty is the unifying element across most of the major characters and scenes; everyone knows that they are marginalized in one way or another, but most simply accept it. There is a clear culture of bending the rules, sidestepping authority, and using police force on when it is convient. Officer Mancuso’s various costumes throughout the novel are a direct satirical jab at both the established police force and a show of how the characters inside the novel regard the authority of the police. Characters seem to do largely as they wish, and only get caught by accident, if at all.

Issues of race and sex are also handled in as relaxed a manner. Burma Jones, the black janitor at the Night of Joy, uses his race as an excuse to speak up about anything and everything; he becomes a kind of Greek Chorus, as he is willing to say what other characters would prefer to leave unsaid. He is often the most actively revolutionary character in the novel, speaking up for fair wages, fair treatment, and calling out discrimination where he sees it. Portrayals of New Orleans’ gay culture are broader, but still distinct; Ignatius finds himself at a party that includes lesbians, gay men in leather, and a little bit of S&M; Ignatius, for his part, remains laser-focused on his political mission. Other portions of the book involve discussions of a striptease involving a large bird. Toole portrays single individual characters from each of New Orleans’ marginalized groups, and throughout the book Ignatius visits each in its social setting, from the black textile factory, to the vagrants on the street, to the Night of Joy strip club, to the police precinct, to the bowling alley, to the French Quarter, to the rundown row-houses inhabited by Reilly and his mother.

The novel was written during the mid-1960s, and Toole gives it a seedy and worn feel; if written today, it would be difficult not to give it all a veneer of sticky self-concious political (in)correctness. When the levies broke during 2005, this shabby, gritty, poor New Orleans was drowned by the floodwaters. The affluent fled the city under their own steam ahead of the storm, and the poor fled to the ill-equipped Superdome. I will not soon forget the CNN-televised images of a city left to fend for itself, of antique houses marked with a red X on the front door, of makeshift graves, of historic homes filled with feet of standing black water, creeping black mold, and weeping owners wading through their sodden, worthless possessions. The New Orleans that has returned has been built from Home Depot pre-fabricated antiseptic vinyl-sided Katrina cottages – small, “cute”, mobile homes Christened with the name of that deadly storm. The most destitute — some of whom might be characters in this novel, and the sort who give New Orleans its special charm — have been too poor to return, their homes permanently destroyed.

The New Orleans of A Confederacy of Dunces is like an old growth forest: once the trees have been cut down, the ecosystem that returns will be similar, but never as rich or as complex as before. In this novel we get an opportunity to witness the old growth before the clearcut, to savor the dankness and grime and special Mardi Gras color that has made NOLA such a unique place. Maybe it will go back to being the way it was, maybe it won’t; this book, fortunately, gives a feeling of that original richness and diversity.


~ by ecp on January 4, 2009.

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