Genre: American Picaresque Novel

Published: 1980 - Read:

A Confederacy of Dunces

John Kennedy Toole ()



This won't be to everyone's liking, but it has become a cult classic to enthusiastic devotees of the ill-fated John Kennedy Toole. I definitely fall into that category. I found it to be very frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Ignatius Reilly, the anti-hero, is an extraordinary creation - he is fiercely intelligent but also physically repulsive...

This book had been on my radar for a long time, and I finally got round to reading it this year… It’s brilliant! It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but for those with the right sense of humour it will become an instant favourite. Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) wrote: “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 true genius in question is the grotesque anti-hero of this novel, Ignatius Reilly. If Don Quixote and Sir John Falstaff had a love child with Asperger’s syndrome, who was easily titillated, but also had a strong sense of moral outrage – then that would be Ignatius Reilly. But you’d have to add to the mix: gluttony, hypochondria and a devotion to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy… Having been to New Orleans (where the book is set) made it a bit more interesting.

The story of John Kennedy Toole’s failure to get a publisher and his (resultant) suicide is tragic – but perhaps the most apt response is to read the book and (with luck) share his belief (and especially his mother’s belief) in its worth.

One Amazon review dismissed it as ‘a load of rubbish’ and claimed to have got half way through the book and not laughed once. I would advise that if you haven’t at least chuckled to yourself within 20 pages of so, then I would put it to one side – it’s not the book for you! A Confederacy of Dunces earned Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

[I disagree completely with Ignatius's estimation of Mark Twain!] Here's a flavour of the style and humour - describing Ignatius's room:

"'It smells terrible in here.' 'Well, what do you expect? The human body, when confined, produces certain odors which we tend to forget in this age of deodorants and other perversions. Actually, I find the atmosphere of this room rather comforting. Schiller needed the scent of apples rotting in his desk in order to write. I, too, have my needs. You may remember that Mark Twain preferred to lie supinely in bed while composing those rather dated and boring efforts which contemporary scholars try to prove meaningful. Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.'"

Or try this:

“I suspect that beneath your offensively and vulgarly effeminate façade there may be a soul of sorts. Have you read widely in Boethius?"
"Who? Oh, heavens no. I never even read newspapers."
"Then you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age," Ignatius said solemnly. "Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books."
"You're fantastic."
"I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he's found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.”