‘A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.’
Ignatius J. Reilly, John Kennedy Toole’s antihero of this electric, hilarious tragicomic tale, is just about the funniest guy you’ll ever come across in fiction – and in true David Brent style, he doesn’t even mean it.
The true tragedy of this brilliant novel is John Kennedy Toole’s despair at not being able to find it a home. He sent A Confederacy Of Dunces out to publishers but took the rejection of the book in his intended form as a tremendous personal blow. He was so gutted that he eventually ceased work on the novel, and for a time left it atop an armoire in his bedroom. He would never get over this repeated rejection, and committed suicide by running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe in through the window of his car on March 26, 1969. It was only his mother, Thelma Toole’s persistence once John was gone that finally saw the novel published. Ironically it would win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction posthumously, and the writer, dead at 31, would never see the fruits of his eventual success.
Ignatius J. Reilly has become a cult figure, and he’s just impossible to hate, despite being the most irritating character I’ve ever encountered in a book. He spends his life tyrannizing his mother and writing his endless comparative history, which, in his mind, assumes more importance than life itself. He’s constantly and consistently balanced between the sublime and the ridiculous: “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” He’s not short of an adventure though, and when he’s forced out into the real world to find a job, things go from bad to worse.
Somewhat parallelling the author himself, Ignatius J. Reilly was not built for this world. His stint as a hotdog vendor is disastrous if not hysterical, and his employers at the Levy Pants Company haven’t a clue what to do with him. At one point he states: “Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.” Typical of his inability to position himself in a world that he considers to be far beneath his intellect.
It’s his encounters with a host of unforgettable and inimitable second-hand characters that really makes this novel saur though; the stripper Darlene and her talented cockatoo; the septuagenarian secretary Miss Trixie, whose desperate attempts to retire are constantly, comically thwarted; gay blade Dorian Greene; sinister Miss Lee, proprietor of the Night of Joy nightclub; and Myrna Minkoff, the girl Ignatius loves to hate. Ignatius is a selfish, menacing, deluded, riotous, funny, complex man. He carries Toole’s story with a heavy streak of melancholy, whilst never failing to keep the reader amused. In fact, it’s only Money by Martin Amis that kept me equally as amused and engaged as A Confederacy Of Dunces.
The BBC has included A Confederacy of Dunces on its list of the 100 most influential novels – testament to Toole’s tormented but undeniable talent. Ignatius, the famous medievalist, quotes: “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.” This is the genius novel of the loner, the black sheep, the misanthrope. It’s staggering to think it was so long left undiscovered and left to rot, unread and unloved.
Quite simply, a masterpiece.