Right off the bat I have to tell you that A Confederacy of Dunces is not – I repeat, not – about the American presidency. How could it be? Its author died in 1969, when Donald Trump was 23 … long before anyone could have predicted that this draft-dodging ladies’ man would one day be the 45th President of the United States.
No, for an inside look at the chaos and confusion of Trump’s presidency you’ll have to read Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff. It’s mesmerizing. As is John Kennedy Toole’s posthumous best-seller, published in 1980, 11 years after his suicide, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of his mother and the writer she successfully badgered to read the manuscript. Since then, Dunces has won the the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, sold 1.5 million copies, and been translated into 18 languages. This for a book that was considered, by almost every publisher, editor and literary agent, to be unpublishable. (Take heart, all writers striving to get your books in print – and be kind to your mothers!)
In Dunces, Toole created a handful of intensely memorable characters, all of them failures in one way or another. There is Darlene, the B-girl who dreams of being an exotic dancer; Mancuso, the patrolman in danger of being kicked off the force for incompetence; Gus Levy, who inherited his father’s clothing business and allowed it to fall into ruin; and Mr. Clyde, the owner of Paradise Vendors, who sells hot dogs consisting of “rubber, cereal, tripe. Who knows? I wouldn’t touch one of them myself.” Burma Jones, the floor sweeper at the Night of Joy bar, compares himself to a plantation slave – working for less than minimum wage, he risks being jailed for vagrancy if he quits.
At the centre of this circle of misfits we have the failed genius – Ignatius J. Reilly, “a man of huge appetites and extraordinary erudition”. Conceited, opinionated, delusional, and flatulent, Ignatius is an obese slob who lives with his widowed mother. He has a master’s degree in medieval culture and a history of academic excellence. He also has a problem with his digestive system, due to his gargantuan appetite for junk food. His hero is Boethius, the Roman senator and philosopher – yes, I had to look him up – who wrote the seminal influence on medieval thought, The Consolation of Philosophy. Although he did some teaching in the past, at the time the book opens Ignatius hasn’t worked for several years. Most days he lies in bed eating, belching, and filling page after notebook page with deep thoughts on how the world has deteriorated since Fortuna, the goddess of luck, turned on humanity: “Having once been so high,” he writes, “humanity fell so low. What was once dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale.”
When Ignatius does venture out – to the movies, generally, in order to bark scathing remarks at the screen – his appearance is, well, eccentric. He favours a green hunting cap with ear flaps (to keep out the cold), voluminous tweed trousers, a plaid flannel shirt and brown suede desert boots that have seen better days: “The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.”
An unfortunate encounter with Mancuso, the patrolman, followed by an accident with his mother’s car, forces Ignatius to get out of bed and, reluctantly, look for work. He lands a job at what may possibly be the worst clothing manufacture company in the history of fiction – not that I’m aware of any others. The office of Levy Pants is home to the deeply ineffective Gonzalez, the office manager, and the decrepit Miss Trixie, the assistant accountant who falls asleep at her desk, dreaming of retirement. Ignatius, hired to do the filing, dumps the files in the waste basket and concentrates on inciting the factory workers to stage a palace coup. When this ends in disaster, Ignatius is fired and forced, by his mother, to find another job.
Against his better judgement, he agrees to work as a hot dog vendor. Hoping to appeal to the tourists in the French Quarter, his boss insists he wear a pirate’s costume. The tourists are unimpressed, Ignatius eats most of the profits, and things, as you’d expect, end badly. Both of these jobs, by the way, are drawn from the author’s experience – while at university Toole filled in for a friend working as a hot tamale vendor; he also worked for a family-owned-and-operated clothing factory.
It wouldn’t be fair to call Dunces biographical, exactly, but we can say that John Kennedy Toole knew well the people he wrote about. The book is consistently praised for its rich depiction of the city of New Orleans and accurate representation of local dialects. Toole, like his hero, excelled academically; he won a scholarship to Tulane University and then spent a year studying English at Columbia University while teaching at Hunter College. He continued to teach right up to his death, and his colleagues and students certainly provided fodder for some of the best satire in the book. Myra Minkoff, the Jewish free-love advocate and former classmate who acts as his nemesis and muse, is as far to the left on the political spectrum as Ignatius is to the right. When his mother suggests he’s leaning towards communism, Ignatius is indignant:
“Do you think that I want to live in a communal society with people like that Battaglia acquaintance of yours, sweeping streets and breaking up rocks or whatever it is people are always doing in those blighted countries? What I want is a good strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry and to cultivate a Rich Inner Life.”
A Confederacy of Dunces has been hailed as a comic masterpiece, and it is definitely very funny. But its hero is also one of the loneliest characters in fiction. There’s a scene near the end where a group of party-goers are making fun of him as he attempts to make a speech:
“There Ignatius stood like the boy on the burning deck. … [He] felt as alone as he had felt on the dark day in high school when in a chemistry laboratory his experiment had exploded, burning his eyebrows off and frightening him. The shock and terror had made him wet his pants, and no one in the laboratory would notice him, not even the instructor … For the remainder of that day, as he walked soggily around the school, everyone had pretended that he was invisible.” That paragraph says more about Ignatius, and perhaps more about the author, than a dozen pompous speeches.
Toole, like Ignatius, had a complicated and difficult relationship with his mother. She was his first fan, as mothers often are, and truly believed in his greatness. When he was young she chose his friends and kept him away from his cousins on his father’s side, deciding they were too common for him to consort with. She encouraged his talents, which were prodigious, and believed him to be a genius. When her son committed suicide by the side of the road just outside Biloxi, Mississippi, Thelma Toole fell into a deep depression for two years. When she recovered, she retrieved the manuscript of Dunces from the top of the armoire in her son’s bedroom and set out to find a publisher. For five years she was turned down by everyone, just as her son had been. Eventually, she found a writer, Walker Percy, who reluctantly agreed to read it. To his amazement, he found that she was right – the book was a masterpiece. And eventually he convinced Louisiana State University to publish it.
A Confederacy of Dunces is not the most satisfying read. The story goes nowhere and there’s no proper ending. But the characters – Ignatius J. Reilly, Myrna Minkoff, Burma Jones, Miss Trixie – are among the most vivid I’ve ever read. The mind that created them well deserves his place in the canon of great Southern literature. A pity we lost him so soon.