Tuesday, August 4, 2020

A Confederacy of Dunces

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the great books of the modern Southern literature. Toole, died at his own hand in 1969, but thanks to the work of Walker Percy and Toole’s mother, Thelma, the book was published in 1980. Toole posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. Since then the book has become one of the most widely read fiction books about New Orleans and the South. 


Set in the early 1960s in New Orleans, the novel’s main character is Ignatius J. Reilly, a slovenly 30 year old man, living with his mother, who is convinced the world is arrayed against him. Well-read but utterly delusional, Reilly wages a solitary crusade against modernity. He decries the perversity of modern movies all the while spending most of his time parked in a theater seat. He sees himself as a modern day Boethius—a martyred philosopher of the Medieval period—railing against injustice. Reilly’s pyloric valve is a modern day Cassandra, warning him of upcoming dangers in his life. 


Reilly does not work or drive, instead relying on his mother for support. She indulges him on account of the death of his father 21 years in the past and because of Ignatius’s intelligence. Over the course of the novel, however, Mrs. Reilly falls in love and with the support of a new best friend conspires to have Ignatius committed to a mental institution. 

 Throughout Ignatius’s adventures in the French Quarter, Uptown, and the Bywater, he frustrates, confounds, and pillories a litany of characters that you can only find in New Orleans. There’s the owner of a pants factory who briefly hires Ignatius while dealing with the manipulations of his wife and an aging employee with dementia. Then there’s Angelo Mancuso, an inept New Orleans police officer who briefly attempts to arrest Ignatius. Throughout the novel, Mancuso finds himself unwittingly transformed into Reilly’s nemesis. There’s a parade of unsavory characters who call a French Quarter strip club their home. Along the way, Reilly torments everyone he meets with the not-at-all interesting story of his one trip outside of New Orleans—a Greyhound Bus trip to Baton Rouge. 


According to literary critics, especially those of New Orleans, Confederacy of Dunces contains the richest depictions of the city and its dialects found in modern literature. Currently, there is a bronze statue of Reilly under the clock at the 800 block of Canal Street (the site of the Hyatt French Quarter hotel). The location was the former home of the D.H. Holmes department store and the novel’s opening scene. The statue depicts Reilly, clad in his hunting cap, flannel shirt, and scarf, studying the crowd outside the store for “signs of bad taste” while waiting for his mother. 


Confederacy of Dunces is a modern classic and well-worth a read from anyone who will enjoy a good laugh at its central character. 

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