Monday 20 April 2015

A Confederacy of Dunces

            There are two types of people in this world – those who have read A Confederacy of Dunces, and everyone else.

            John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece reeks of absurd life and introduces Ignatius Reilly, one of the 20th Century’s great literary characters. But have no fear: this is no scholarly tome but an outrageously comical romp through New Orleans.

            You will recognize the book’s influence on many of today’s writers: in particular, Tom Wolfe and his Bonfire of the Vanities. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that The Bronx’s Richard Price – arguably America’s finest living writer – hasn’t also cracked a few pages of Confederacy.

            Though written back in 1963 there’s scarcely an archaic reference; but then John Kennedy Toole is a writer for the ages.

Like Vincent Van Gogh he hadn’t an iota of success in his lifetime. In fact, A Confederacy of Dunces was not published until 1980, eleven years after Toole’s suicide.

So, who was John Kennedy Toole? Well, he was decidedly well-read for the book is prefaced by Jonathan Swift’s quote, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

The Tooles arrived in New Orleans from Ireland during the Great Hunger of the 1840’s. His mother Thelma Ducoing, the major influence on his life, also had Irish roots through her Kennedy grandfather. Thelma was highly cultured and encouraged young Ken (as Toole was known) to pursue his interest in theatre and literature.

However, she was possessive and controlling, not unlike the mother of Ignatius, the anti-hero of Confederacy. Thelma invested all her hopes in her popular and intellectually brilliant son, and yet he often appeared sullen and morose in her presence. If he was indeed writing about his mother in Confederacy he didn’t stint on her faults, yet his portrayal is ultimately sympathetic as it is for each of his blustery and self-obsessed characters.

Many feel that Toole used a fellow English professor, Bob Byrne, as a model for obese, supercilious Ignatius – Byrne too was a slob, played the lute, and wore a deerstalker hunting cap despite the often stifling heat of New Orleans. Byrne however felt that Toole himself was the model: “a strange person, both extroverted and private, with a strong desire to be recognized but also a strong sense of alienation – just like Ignatius Reilly.”

There’s no doubt that Confederacy captures the unfamiliar underbelly of working class New Orleans and renders it just as exotic as the Mardi Gras city we’re accustomed to. And what a guide Toole is – unrelentingly and hilariously non-politically correct, he skewers every class, nationality and race with equal delight.

Each of the twenty or so characters is larger than life and solidly ensconced in their own private universes. Alas, their worlds collide with abandon, but each character is so realistic and wonderfully drawn, you have to wonder if you too in your daily routine are behaving in an equally absurd manner.

Toole tried hard to get his book published and even gained the ear of the legendary Robert Gottlieb, senior editor at Simon & Schuster. Gottlieb did his best to shape Confederacy but Toole was reluctant to make changes – and rightly so!

When Gottlieb eventually passed on the book Toole was shattered. He sunk into depression and acute paranoia, and eventually took his own life.

There the matter might have rested. But Thelma, his driven mother, was convinced of her Ken’s genius. After many rejections, she began pestering Walter Percy, a faculty member of Loyala University. One day she barged into his office and, fearing a scene, he began to read the battered manuscript - at first with indifference, and then incredulity, scarcely able to believe the brilliance of Toole’s writing.

The book was eventually published in 1980 and in 1981 Toole received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It has now sold close to 2 million copies in a legion of languages.

Read it and delight in the crazy universe of Ignatius Reilly. And if you’ve been rejected in some walk of life, don’t despair like John Kennedy Toole, especially if you have an obsessive mother who won’t give up on you.

Monday 6 April 2015

Feeling Lonely? Why Not Write A Play...

            Feeling lonely, depressed, no one making a big deal out of you? Why not write a play?

            With fifteen of them under my belt, take my word: you need not fear being propositioned hourly by ravishing actors seeking parts in your masterpiece.

            However, the characters you create will forever clatter around your brain like a gang of cider-swilling skinheads. Bid farewell to days of solitude.

            And since you’re unlikely to ever make a buck from playwriting, you can feel smugly superior to those who concern themselves with such banalities. You, my friend, will have ascended to the ranks of a serious artiste.

Not to mention that you can drink like a fish without guilt – weren’t Brendan Behan and Eugene O’Neill first class rummies, and it’s rumored that even Shakespeare murdered pints in the morning.

            Everyone has a good play in them – or at least everyone who attends my dramas knows exactly how to make them better.

            But if by chance you’re stumped for a subject, fear not - every family has at least one skeleton in the closet.

Did someone just roar out “Aunt Bridie’s one night stand with a married communist trombonist!” Now you’re talking drama!

            Here’s the first rule – do not begin at page 1 where Aunt Bridie is dolling herself up before heading to Killarney Town Hall where she will meet the trombonist from the Johnny Flynn Showband.

            You’ll be astonished at how technically difficult it is to get the old babe from her bedroom to the dance floor. Page 2 through 7 will take months and you could end up with a serious drinking problem. Why do you think Behan and O’Neill were such heavy hitters?

            No, you’ve a lot of thinking to do before you ever put pen to paper. Having a beard is great during this gestation period, as you can twirl it, and really look like you know what you’re doing even when you don’t have a clue. 

            You see, you’ve got to get Bridie situated firmly in your mind’s eye. Some refined exaggeration never goes astray. Start with her eyes. Make them unusual in either color or character without going overboard, or she could end up looking like Bono with the yellow glasses.

Then tackle the hair. Beware of baldness. You would be amazed how much wigs cost nowadays, and how touchy actresses can be about shaving off the whole shebang.

With Bridie’s general physiognomy finally taken care of, you’re ready to write – but you’re still miles away from Page 1. You now have to deliver her back-story. Be of stout heart – jot down everything you know, and - more important – everything you suspect. Anyone who gave it up to a married communist trombone player has many secrets, you will be positively astounded at what you unearth.

            The real writing now begins, but cut straight to the chase. What were the trombonist’s first words to Bridie? From there continue on to the tragic end, and tragic it will be – just picture poor Bridie in the clutches of any musician of your acquaintance! From this sad denouement, work your way back to Page 1.

            This will take much time, beard twirling, and visits to dive bars to observe musicians in their natural habitat. Eventually, you’ll have much less money and far more material than you need. That’s par the course – playwriting is all about editing and pacing yourself in pubs. However, if you’ve followed my instructions faithfully, you should have the makings of a decent play.

            The next step is to get a bunch of actors together to read your masterpiece aloud. You’ll also need a psychotic director – for in the many moments you question your own sanity it will help to have someone present who’s certifiably crazier than you.

            Then head for An Béal Bocht in the Bronx. There’s a crowd of ne’er-do-wells up there who put on plays. And if they shoot you down you’ll at least be amidst other serious artistes in a great bar; besides, you’ll never drink alone again now that you have Aunt Bridie and the married communist trombone player forever knocking around in your skull.

            PS Probably better to keep Aunt Bridie away from opening night!