Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Confederacy of Dunces: A Book Review

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (Louisiana State University Press, 1980: Blackstone Audio Version, 1997)

It’s an understatement to say that Ignatius J. Reilly is unique. The only thing larger than his body is his ego and vocabulary. Never has there been such a narcissist! And why should Ignatius use a couple small words when a half dozen or more large words would suffice. Not only is he obnoxious, he's weird. He wears a flannel shirt, baggy tweed pants and a hunting cap with ear flaps (as if an arctic storm might strike New Orleans). He's on a crusade against the modern world, drawing his enlightening from a late medieval philosopher, Boethius (Interestingly, I ran across this philosopher twice in one day, once in Toole's book and again in an article I was reading on Dante!). He has a "bad valve" and digestive system and, when things don't go his way, belts out "Oh my God!" and blames someone else (or Fortuna) for his problems. A Confederacy of Dunces is Ignatius story and it is a hoot!

There is something in A Confederacy of Dunces to offend just about everyone except perhaps medieval Catholics (but there aren't too many of them left around). Toole goes after modern Catholics, Protestants, Calvinists, Right Wingers, Liberals, Fascists, Communists and Capitalists, Caucasians, African-Americans and homosexuals. No one is safe from Toole's pen; but since just about everyone is included, we can all laugh at ourselves.

Toole had a wonderful ability to create characters. He was a master of dialogue. The reader follows Ignatius around as his mother strives to create a life for herself and to get her son to take responsibility for his own life. The journey starts with Ignatius waiting for his mother in front of the D. H. Holmes Department Store. After an encounter with the police in which an old man is arrested, it quickly moves to the in the Night of Joy, a stripper club where Ignatius and his mother sought refuge. Through his misadventures, we are introduced to a host of unforgettable characters. Lana Lee is the owner of Nazi-like owner of the Night of Joy and Darlene is the clueless stripper. After making a scene in the club, Ignatius and his mother are thrown out and then his mother wrecks her car, putting the family in a financial pinch which necessitates Ignatius getting a job.

Ignatius is hired by Mr. Gonzalez, the office manager for Levy Pants. Gonzalez is just glad to have a body to fill the position. His co-worker is Miss Trixie, a senile accountant who just wants to retire. She is no longer useful and mostly sleeps, but Gonzalez must retain her because Mrs. Levy demands it. Mr. Levy, the second generation owner of the factory, hates Levy Pants and is henpecked by his wife who keeps berating him for not living up to this father's standards and who constantly threatens to tell his daughters about their incompetent father. While working for Levy Pants, Ignatius decides to strike a blow against the system, an act designed to impress Myrna, his former girlfriend. He attempts to lead the factory workers in a coup against Gonzales. The crusade fails when the workers decide they don't want to be arrested for following a fool. Ignatius is fired.

Ignatius next job is as a hot dog vendor, a position that allows him to eat most of the profits. While pushing the cart, he's befriends George, a high school boy who finds his cart a wonderful location to hid his contraband, pornographic pictures. George is in business with Lana Lee. He's also befriended by Dorian Greene (is Toole playing on Dorian Gray?), a gay man who loves to throw parties. Although at first revolted by Dorian (Ignatius refers to him and his friends as "Sodomites), Ignatius decides that maybe they are the key to attacking the modern world. He envisions a society with gays having taken over the world's militaries and spend their time creating fancy uniforms and throwing parties instead of making war. Seeing this as the answer to world peace, he partners with Dorian for a grand party. Dorian and Ignatius have different views of what the party is to be about and in the end, Ignatius flees in the face of three lesbians who are out to do him bodily harm.

Paralleling Ignatius troubles are the happenings at the Night of Joy and the misfortunes of Patrolman Angelo Mancuso. The Night of Joy hires a new janitor, Burma Jones. As an African-American, h e needs a job to avoid a vagrancy charge. Knowing this, he's hired below minimum wage. Throughout the book, he makes snide comments about his wage. The owner often responds by reminding him that if he doesn't have a job, the police would arrest him. He responds, noting there’s something fishy about her "charity work." Like Ignatius, Jones plans to sabotage his employers and in the end, helps Patrolman Mancuso breaks open a high school pornography ring. Mancuso, who at the beginning of the book made a stupid arrest of a grandfather, is sent undercover into the bus station bathroom (a way his sergeant can punish him). In the end, he gets a surprise break. Not only does he receive credit for the break in the pornography ring, he also arrests the three raging lesbians who'd attacked Ignatius. For this, he's in line for a promotion.

Like a Shakespearean comedy, the book concludes with a reversal of fortunes. Ignatius is reunited with Myrna (although one is left wondering how long it will take before they get on each other's nerves). He’s in the backseat of her car as they drive back to New York. Mancuso is no longer in danger of being fired from the police force. Mr. Levy is interested in the well-being of Levy Pants and decides to take up his wife on her suggestion to start a foundation in honor of his father. But as a way to get back at his wife, he decides to honor Burma Jones as the first recipient. Levy had read about Jones in the newspaper account of the arrest at the Night of Joy. Irene, Ignatius' mother, and Claude, the grandfather arrested by Mancuso, are together and untroubled by Ignatius, whom they think is being comfortably cared for at the mental hospital.

I listened to the Blackstone Audio Edition (via on my Ipod. Barrett Whitener, who read the book, did a wonderful job of creating distinctive voices for each of the characters. I’m not sure what took me so long to get around to reading (or listening) to this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book brought me many laughs.

This is my third book in Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge
For more of Sage's book reviews, click here.


  1. Large ego and vocabulary. I wonder if he is related to Heat-Moon?

  2. I tried to read it once, but it was over-the-top even for me. Hard to believe, I know.

  3. Um... if it's a reading CHALLENGE, isn't it cheating to listen to it? I think the point is making sure you can read those big words, Sage :)

    PS: Considentally enough, moroon was my word verification. I'll leave it at that ;-)

    (Sorry. That was a Murf comment I know. I couldn't seem to help myself though.)

  4. I don't know how I've managed to miss that book and I must read it!

  5. Sounds like a good one. I need a few laughs at the moment.

    BTW, your trip sounds great. I hope you didn't get crushed by the crowds at Mesa Verde. (Below, I guessed you were within 100 miles of the four corners. What do I win?)


  6. Sage - this might be the best review I've read of this book. Well done!

  7. Pia, thanks. Would you be offended if I tell you that I had a vision of Myrna being you?

    Ed, Maybe, but I don't think Heat-Moon of as a sloth

    Fantasy Life, You'll have to try again!

    TC, give me a break... I did listen to the unabridged version, nearly 14 hours long! I'll probably go back and reread it--with a paper version. And you don't know how much work it took to get that word to come up just for you! :)

    Edelweiss, ah, you've read the book!

    Sherman, Enjoy the book. We were closer than that to the 4 corners (but we didn't go up to the actual site. I'll give you the pick of an unopened Barry Manalow CD or a brand new flying pigs necktie! (or I'll lend you the forest service maps for the area you are planning to travel this fall).

    Diane, thanks!

  8. I am also reading this one :-) So I only read the first third of your review, because I have just gotten the point in the book where Ignatius has been employed as a weenie vendor ;o) Can't wait to read more. I do have to read it carefully, since I am Danish and doesn't speak English :o) The language is a tad convoluted sometimes in that book.

  9. Wonderful review. It makes mewish to pick up the book.

    BTW, I too finished the SRC 3 challenge!