Wednesday, April 02, 2008

One Man's Epic Struggle Against the World

An appreciation of John Kennedy Toole's remarkable comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces

Sometimes you'll read a novel and you'll think to yourself, "OK, this was a great read - a formidable contribution to the _______ genre." And then there are other occasions, much rarer of course, in which you'll finish a novel and want to climb up onto the highest platform you can find and proclaim, "I have never read a story like this before... and trust me, you haven't either! Track down a copy of this book and read it now!" I am happy to report that John Kennedy Toole's posthumous comic masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, is a brilliant example of the latter category. Consider this post my yelp of praise from the rooftops.

Of course, I am way late to this Crescent City fete. This is a novel that has been repeatedly praised from the moment of its publication in 1980 - unfortunately, years after Mr. Toole committed suicide at the ridiculously early age of 32. But since that time the book has never gone out of print, and the party rages on in celebration of what is undeniably an amazing artistic achievement - a novel that is truly comic in both the classical and modern senses of the word: hilarious, ribald, madcap, rambling, poignant, profound, vulgar (again, in both senses: crass AND appealing to the masses), wise and ending on a note of joy and hope. It is a terrible shame that the ending of the author's own real life echoes with tones from the opposite end of the scale.

But if one of the criteria by which we might evaluate the impact of a life is the kind of legacy it has left for those who come after it, then at least on this level the achievement of John Kennedy Toole can be justly and gratefully celebrated. Walker Percy said it best in his hilariously self-deprecating, appreciative forward:

"It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing. But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers."

Fortunately for us, Percy was true to his word and helped to make that happen, after being given the original manuscript by Toole's mother and cajoled into reading it. The rest, as they say, is literary history.

To attempt to summarize such a convoluted and rambling a tale as A Confederacy of Dunces would go well beyond the scope of a blog post. Instead what I want to try to do is whet appetites and provide intriguing clues as to why this is so immensely pleasurable and profound a book. That's why I have called this not a review, but an appreciation.

The tale's hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, resembles an American Don Quixote for the modern age. That description alone may capture the attention of readers who, like myself, appreciate and admire the long literary tradition of the loveable fool, the protagonist whose entire existence seems to be contra mundi, swimming against the strong currents generated by the society he (or she) lives in. Reilly certainly has his share of windmills to assault (everything from capitalism to post-Vatican II Catholicism to the sexual revolution), and he even has a Dulcinea of sorts in his feisty, "liberated" ex-girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff. Throughout the novel Reilly is engaged in a "war of letters" with Minkoff, each railing against the worldview of the other and recommending steps of action for the other to get their lives in order (Toole breaks into the narrative repeatedly with passages from these letters, as well as other passages from Reilly's copious journal entries). Myrna thinks that Ignatius needs to break the apron strings attaching him to his mother and become sexually active; Ignatius is shrewd enough to know that sex is certainly not the answer to all of his problems, but is slow in realizing how much his dependence on his mother is hurting him. Ironically, it is Minkoff who in the end provides for him the escape from her that he so desperately needs.

There are many reasons why this is a truly great novel. For one, the prose is richly evocative of the city of New Orleans - clearly written by a native, in celebration of one of America's most unique and treasured landmarks. (Of course the book to me came with an extra layer of poignancy since I am reading it post-Katrina: the clammy squalor and poverty so vividly described in many of the book's passages can only have increased since that terrible storm ravaged this proud city.) I have never been there, but there is a palable sense of humidity and grime in Toole's descriptions of the sleazier parts of the French Quarter and of the Reillys' home, especially Ignatius' room where he spends the greater part of his unemployed days lying in bed and/or writing. Yet he also captures the frenetic activity in the bustling streets, the carnival atmosphere, the elegant architecture and the rat-haunted ports in descriptions that make you feel as if you know the place. Most if not all of the characters in the book are a part of the city's working class, and as you follow them from local corner groceries to night clubs to back alleys where winos, hookers and transvestites frolic together, you really get a flavor for this crazy and unique place.

But to me the most appealing aspect of this novel is its main character and his quixotic struggle against modern civilization. Perhaps it is the idealist in me, the unabashed romantic, but I (like so many others) am always drawn to this type of protagonist - the "holy fool" engaged in a one-man (or woman, as the case may be) war against the accepted norms, the vagaries and absurdities of a culture that has rejected traditional wisdom and values. To me the ultimate poster child for this sort of free-spirited, "foolish" innocence that takes pleasure in challenging current conventions is the great English writer and thinker G. K. Chesterton, and I could not help but think of him as I followed Reilly around... he even seems to resemble Chesterton, with his great bulk, heavy moustache and penchant for dramatic costumes and chivalric statements and deeds. I don't think it's an accident here that GKC is even quoted in the book, or that Reilly's favorite book and "bible" for living is a medieval text (The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius - a book that highly influenced C. S. Lewis as well, it's worth noting). Ignatius is much more cynical and confused than Chesterton seems to have been (one of the wisest and most well-grounded writers I know of, largely due to his celebrated defense of and adherence to, Catholicism), but he retains both a physical and spiritual resemblance to the man, and is something of a "colossal genius" in his own right.

As with any true comedy in the classic sense, Ignatius Reilly's story is not all fun and games and belly laughs. There are moments of great poignancy and pain in this novel, especially towards the end after many of his repeated attempts at "revolution" have failed, most of his friends and family members have rejected him, he has lost several jobs and his own mother is trying to get him institutionalized. At one point a former colleague visits him at his home and experiences the physical squalor and emotional abuse (his mother is an alcoholic, I meant to add) he lives with on a daily basis, and takes pity on him. In this moment the reader too is distracted enough from the hilarity of Reilly's rantings and madcap adventures to see the harsh realities of his life, and it is deeply moving... and when a writer can do that, take you on a such a wild, rushing roller coaster ride and yet inspire in you deep feeling for his characters along the way - feelings you hadn't had time to notice you even picked up - then that to me shows he knows what he's doing. A Confederacy of Dunces is a wild, hilarious, but also powerful and profound journey that has you pulling for the philosopher-hot dog vendor-culture warrior buffoon, Ignatius J. Reilly, to the extent that when you wave to his car speeding away on the last page, as he makes one last mad hopeful dash towards freedom and possibility, you find yourself surprised at how hard it is to say goodbye.


Mutt Ploughman said...

Magesterial post. The best compliment I can really make to this excellent kick-off to dialogue is to do what I just did: immediately put it on hold at the library. I am looking forward to entering the discussion soon.

Duke Altum said...

Awesome news Mutt, I am really glad to hear it... I think yours is the take I would be really interested to get, having read so many classic comedic novels yourself... this is definitely one you will be able to sink your teeth into. You may not love it, but I'll tell you this: you won't have ready anything like it!! Thanks for reading and commenting on the post... this is what TST is all about...

Cathy said...

Ok, I got the book from the library today....I am looking forward to it, but am a little intimidated at the same time! For YEARS I have been reading only how-to type books (how to be a wife and mom), but this might be just what I really need -- to get my eyes off myself for a while.

I don't know if I'll enter the conversation with you guys, because you'll be five books down the road by the time I finish (I read page one and looked up one word already). But thank you so much for the recommendation. I'd like to know who could read your first paragraph and resist reading this book!