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+


Hackenbush said...

It's been years (my copy that I bought new says it was $7.95 to give you an idea) but what I recall is that the book was good but that I found it much more sad than funny.
PS I just stumbled upon your second blog. Look forward to seeing more. I'm quite the literary type myself. Again, good luck at Barbara's.

Mike said...

Right at the beginning when Ignatius' lute is called a "banjo", you know you're in for a classic fish-out-of-water tale....glad you dug it!

Tony L. said...

One of the funniest books I've read. People who know have told me that real people like Ignatius populate the seedier underbelly of New Orleans. You should read about the problems that people have had with trying to bring this into a movie theatre.