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.

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