By John Kennedy Toole.
The Pulizter Prize which Toole won for this book in 1981 was posthumous because he had committed suicide in 1969 after failing to get the book published. I don’t know what sort of person Toole was, but I have been wondering to what extent he is part of his novel’s odious and malodorous anti-hero.
Ignatius J. Reilly is a flatulent, obese egotist who has an abusive parasitic relationship with his mother, Irene. After a close encounter with the police, Ignatius and his mother end up at the Night of Joy, a seedy club, where she has one too many, and crashes her car on the way home. The resulting bill of US$1,000 is well beyond her pocket, and forces Ignatius to seek employment.
He first works at Levy Pants which is managed by the cautious Mr Gonzales, who is required to employ the elderly, somnolent, and senile Miss Trixie on the orders of the owner’s wife. Ignatius blunders into the business and rapidly gets himself promoted. He writes an abusive letter to one of the companies suppliers, and he tries to organise a protest against the manager, but it goes badly wrong, and having been fired, he must seek a new job.
That job, which he finds by chance, is vending hot dogs, most of which he eats himself, and is haemorrhaging money as a result until he gets inadvertently caught up in a network distributing porn from the Night of Joy.
While he is on his rounds, he also decides to found a political party comprising homosexuals, but it turns into a disaster when he finds himself at an actual party, where he is not appreciated by the other guests, who regard him as a novelty.
After finding the pornographic postcards in his hot dog cart, Ignatius sets off to the Night of Joy because he believes that the woman in question is, like him, a fan of Boethius. The evening turns into a complete disaster with Ignatius ending up unconscious and hauled off to hospital.
His mother decides that Ignatius needs to be in a special hospital for special people, but just as the net is closing in, his so-called girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, arrives from New York and he flees with her.
What is Ignatius supposed to represent? Is he meant to be America – fat, oblivious, demanding, and destructive? As I wondered at the start of the review, is Ignatius a reflection of Toole, being egotistical and convinced of his own genius? There is nothing likeable about Reilly, and there is, I think, a good chance that many readers hope that he will come to a sticky end.
Throughout the book, Ignatius displays a talent for destroying other people’s lives. In the opening of the book, Ignatius attracts the attention of Angelo Mancuso, who ends up arresting Mr Robichaux, an old man who is obsessed with Communiss [sic!]. Mancuso ends up being given the worst assignments, and is at risk of losing his job when Ignatius ruins the life of Lana Lee, the owner of Night of Joy, and she is arrested for pornography and prostitution.
There are large parts of the novel which merely served to increase the production of ink for printing and the felling of trees to manufacture paper. The chapters in which Ignatius writes the journal of his work experience tend to be tedious. Most of the characters scream responses sooner or later. The word may only be on the page, but its frequency makes it noticeable.
A Confederacy of Dunces is an amusing book, but Ignatius is wearying and lacking in any redeeming features. His escape at the end is anticlimactic. He should be incarcerated; he should be left rotting insanely in a padded cell utterly unaware that he is completely delusional; he should believe he is escaping only for the reader to hear his mother saying, “Ain’t that awful?” as she watches him, strapped to the bed in his cell, before she goes off with Mr Robichaux.
The one character in the book who was sympathetic was Angelo Mancuso, the policeman who seems doomed only for the curse of Ignatius to damn Lana Lee just at the right moment.
I suppose Mancuso has been revolving on Fortune’s wheel, which is a theme of the novel. Most of the time, the wheel is mentioned with reference to Ignatius, but it’s the officer’s first encounter with this fat menace that leads to his fall just as he leads to his rise. I assume that Toole was trying to be clever. Ignatius is perhaps the unwitting instrument of Fortune as well as being one of her toys.
A Confederacy of Dunces is a long book which isn’t without some entertainment value, but it outstays its welcome by two-thirds. It’s easy to imagine publishers rejecting it because of its length, because the main character is so vile, and because the book ends without him being satisfactorily resolved.