Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Once I got off school for break back in May, I set a simple goal for myself.

Read five books over the summer.

Seems easy, but, for a notoriously slow reader like myself, it presented quite a challenge. A challenge, as I'm happy to report, that I've already completed. I'm currently on my seventh book of the summer, and, although the size of John Kennedy Toole's nearly 400-page novel A Confederacy of Dunces gave me pause at first (most of the others I've been reading are in the 200-to-300-page range), I ended up bolting through it at a surprisingly quick pace.

Like most things in life, novels are about quality, not quantity...but that doesn't change the daunting crate of unread books in my room right now.

A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the few works that's made its way into my "read" pile.

How I Found It: Recommended by my dad at this year's Lit Fest. He sold me on it after about two sentences, and Toole's novel shot right up my "to be read" list before I started it a few weeks ago.

Total Reading Time: About two weeks.

Overview: Part of the reason I was able to finish A Confederacy of Dunces fairly quickly (for me) was the fact that I was taking a two-week summer course at the time, and I had an ample amount of time to read the novel on the bus to and from class each day. The course was in creative writing, which is fitting because, as became obvious to me about ten pages in, Toole's novel is a blueprint of fiction writing at its finest.

Tragic as it is, the backstory of A Confederacy of Dunces is worth knowing upon starting the book. John Kennedy Toole, the author, completed the novel in the mid-1960s and was a professor at the time. Sadly, he committed suicide in 1969, a decision which may have been influenced by Toole's inability to get Dunces published. It was only the work of his mother ten years after the fact (who had found a manuscript of Toole's book in her attic) that eventually triggered the novel's publication and ultimate success, culminating with a Pulitzer Prize award in 1981.

Now, for most other novels, I'd provide a basic (and perhaps meandering) bit of plot detail, but, in the case of Dunces, I have no idea where to start. In its most simple form, the book follows one Ignatius Reilly and his various travels around the city of New Orleans. He makes enemies (many of them), finds (and loses) jobs, and is pestered by letters from a former sexually-open girlfriend from his past. Because of the wide range of characters and scenes in the book, the plot detail describing this book could be as long as the book itself, so I'll just leave it at that for now.

If you haven't figured it out by now I really, really enjoyed Dunces. The sheer authorship of it is masterful, for one. Most books need time to warm up until hitting the ultimate climax somewhere near the middle before falling back down. Not this one. I might argue that the climax in Dunces comes somewhere around Page 5 or Page 10, because the entire novel is basically a fallout from the first two scenes featuring Ignatius getting kicked out of a shopping center, and, immediately afterwards, a shady local bar. The entire cast of characters (around a dozen or so) materialize from the events of first twenty pages or so. And, despite my initial worries that the book was biting off more than it could chew, Toole does indeed tie each and every one of said characters together with a brilliant scene near the end of the novel, a scene that most definitely ranks as one of the best I've ever read in the world of fiction.

But, just as importantly as anything else, this novel is flat-out funny, too, and it had me laughing out loud at many points. Perhaps the best was Ignatius's failed "revolt" at his office job at Levy Pants, and, for some reason, simply picturing image from this particular passage had me in stitches...

         "Attack! Attack!" Ignatius cried again, even more furiously. His blue and yellow eyes protruded and flashed.
         Someone halfheartedly whizzed a bicycle chain over the top of the file cabinets and knocked the bean plants to the floor.
         "Now look what you've done," Ignatius said. "Who told you to knock those plants over?"
         "You say, 'Attagg,'" the owner of the bicycle chain answered.

I'm a man of lists, and I thought it'd be a long time before my All-Time Top Five Books list saw any changes. But, against all odds, I think A Confederacy of Dunces managed to do it. It is, by all accounts, one of the finest works of fiction I've ever had the pleasure of consuming. Welcome to the Top Five, Ignatius.

Final Grade: A+

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review: The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover

I apologize for the long, long delay between posts here.

I'll try to maintain at least a semi-regular schedule on this blog from now on. I don't plan on making this thing exclusively book reviews, but I do need to catch up on a few novels I've read over the past month or so.

Tonight, I'll be combing through Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., a novel that combines my recent romance with literature and my lifelong romance with baseball.

How I Discovered It: This is not to brag, but a baseball-themed story I wrote was published by my school's literary journal in the Spring. The piece later won the yearly Creative Non-Fiction award at my university, and, as a result, I found myself known as "the baseball guy" amongst my peers. One of my classmates found out about it and recommended this book to me due to the baseball-centric subject matter. I ordered a copy of Coover's novel for myself about a week later and dug into it not long after that. It's the first book I can think of that I bought/read on a recommendation by someone other than my dad.

Total Reading Time: A week.

Overview: I'll say right off the bat that this novel is built around one of those ideas that, as a writer, I wish I'd had. 

The basis revolves around an accountant (J. Henry Waugh) who becomes deeply immersed in a baseball dice game born entirely out of his own creation. Specifically, when the reader meets him in Chapter One, Henry is completely enthralled with a star rookie pitcher named Damon Rutherford (son of Brock Rutherford, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the UBA -- Universal Baseball Association). Damon tosses a perfect game, and Henry celebrates as if it was, on a personal level, a major accomplishment. The climax of the novel, however, comes when Damon is tragically killed by an errant hit by pitch, a dire end that comes about as a result of a three straight triple-1 dice rolls by Henry. The rest of the novel, more or less, features the downfall of Damon's passing though Henry's eyes. Henry loses his motivation, his job, and, as the reader can infer, his mind.

I went into this novel with high hopes and wasn't quite sure what to think by the time I flipped the last page. It may have been the most night-and-day narrative of any book I've ever read. I'd put the first two chapters up against some of my most treasured pieces of literature. Coover blends a perfect mix of comedy, fantasy, celebration, anticipation, and, ultimately, tragedy into the first 50-75 pages of this novel. The opening chapters almost make you forget that this is a dice game. You celebrate right along with Henry after Damon's perfect game, and you feel beaten and empty after the pitcher's death. I breezed through the first two chapters and couldn't wait for more.

But, to be completely honest, the final three chapters of this novel were somewhat of a slog. The third chapter features a long, meandering bar scene featuring a countless number of Henry's mystical, fantasy ballplayers, whooping it up in celebration of the "good ol' days" of the UBA. Henry himself, meanwhile, is vacant from the third chapter. I got what the section was trying to do, trying to highlight Henry's seemingly paradoxical attempt to escape the tragedy of the current UBA by immersing himself in the old UBA, each of which are fantasies within themselves. I understood this after about five pages, but the chapter goes on for about five times that and doesn't advance the novel a whole lot. The fourth chapter was a bit of a rebound, in that Henry seeks some sort of "retaliation" for the pitcher (Jock Casey) who threw the pitch that caused Damon's death. The fifth and final chapter is somewhat of a variation of the third, and left me lukewarm about the ultimate end of the novel.

Though I doubt it's through any fault of Coover's, I was also unhappy about the descriptions on the book jacket itself. The very first sentence of the brief description on the back of the novel gives away the ultimate "shocker" of the plot, Damon's death. This, as a result, made me read the first two chapters in a way that had me waiting for the climax, rather than it catching me off-guard. Part of the beauty of reading a good book is that feeling of WHAT?!?!?! when something unexpected happens. This novel definitely had that, but the publisher (or whoever writes the those back descriptions) gave it away within about three seconds of me picking this book up.

In the end, I did enjoy this book, even if I felt that it was a little lacking in execution. If nothing else, the novel got me to pick up an old baseball dice game I used to play as a preteen/adolescent. I've been playing it daily ever since I finished this book. Unlike video games, dice games place the entire burden of creation upon us, the players. Dice games allow us to create the setting within our own imaginations, which, for some of us, is precisely the fix we need. Maybe I'm not that different from J. Henry Waugh after all.

Final Grade: B