Review – A Confederacy of Dunces

There are two types of people on this continent: those who have read and loved the 30+-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces and those who have never heard of it. Oh, and a third type – me. I’ve read the book and I still don’t know what the heck to make of it. 

The story goes that John Kennedy Toole’s mom discovered this completed manuscript among her son’s stuff after he committed suicide in 1969. It was apparently written in the early 1960s. She took it to a novelist who was teaching a university class and persuaded him to read it. This author, Walker Percy, was so enamoured by what he read that he championed the cause of getting it published, which happened in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Price for fiction in 1981. Since then, scads of stand-up comics, writers and other artists have touted the virtues of this book. So when I saw it in pristine paperback condition at a flea market for less than $5 I thought, what the hell. If it’s good enough for Colin Quinn, it’s good enough for me.

Cover of A Confederacy of Dunces is a cartoon of a fat man wearing a green hunting cap with a giant bird on his head pecking at his ear

Or is it? The story is set in New Orleans, decades before that city’s dug-in racial inequality became widely known. It centres on Ignatius J. Reilly, a morbidly obese layabout who hates anything to do with modern life and goes to the movies only to shout aloud about how horrible films have become. Ignatius lives with his impoverished, widowed mother whom he treats like a maid. He loathes travel of any kind and will tell anyone who listens about the horrors he faced on the one occasion he ventured out of New Orleans by bus. It’s a truly ordinary story, but to Ignatius it’s dramatic, and supports his decision to stay at home as much as possible. He and a woman he met at college – which he attended for a decade to avoid having to take responsiblity for himself – trade deeply insulting letters after she moves to New York. He gets a job, gets fired, gets another job, screws that boss around, his mother finds new friends who try to convince her to put her son in a psych ward…. it’s a farce but it’s not really funny and yet I couldn’t stop reading it.

Reviewers call A Confederacy of Dunces a “masterwork” and a thousand other superlatives. I simply don’t get it. A guy I know says it’s his favourite book and describes it as hilarious. I can’t agree with that either. Did I like it? Well, I felt it necessary to read the whole thing, not because of any outside force, but out of genuine curiosity about what would happen. But I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend it. The prose is dense and full of Louisiana colloquialisms. Ignatius’s gluttony can be gross and the way he treats people is sometimes horrifying. Oh, did I mention that there’s a porn-making bar owner, a hooker determined to launch a stage career and a cop assigned to stay in a bathroom until he makes a bust? Confederacy has been made into a play, and several attempts at turning it into a movie have so far failed. Maybe that’s for the best. 

I’ve got it. Here’s my review: A Confederacy of Dunces. Don’t believe the hype; read at your own peril!

Toole wrote one other novel before he took his own life. Strangely, I have an urge to look for it…

4 thoughts on “Review – A Confederacy of Dunces”

  1. It takes a certain amount of bravery to come out and say “I don’t get it” about a popular piece of art, work or both. I felt that way about “Atlas Shrugged”: I just couldn’t wade through it (and when I found out who worships Ayn Rand – the far right – it made me care even less). I don’t find “Catcher in the Rye” to be all that compelling either, but that may have more to do with Mark David Chapman than JD Salinger…

  2. Cavan Kelly

    Count me amongst those who had never heard of this book or author but a search of Amazon.ca returns 5 pages of results for the author. The book has been translated into German, Spanish, French, and Portuguese and has asking prices of as much as $694 (also as low as 1 cent). Colour me curious.

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