A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

New Orleans: Statue of fictional character Ign...

New Orleans: Statue of fictional character Ignatius J. Reiley from the novel “A Confederacy of Dunces”, beneath the clock where the first scene of the novel finds him. Formerly the entrance of D. H. Holmes Department store, now a Hotel on Canal Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Typically, I do some research prior to writing one of these critiques, but this is the first time that I have had to consult a medical dictionary.  Toole’s main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, lives with his mother and is afflicted with a condition that causes his “pyloric valve” to open or close, depending on his level of emotional stress.  Although there is a pyloric sphincter muscle that opens and closes a valve that separates the stomach from the lower intestine, a cursory review of stomach ailments does not support the existence of the condition Ignatius suffers from.  This is a work of humorous “fiction” though, and unless you happen to be an expert in gastro-intestinal issues, you accept it as plausible – not that such acceptance is needed for a comedy.  As for the plausibility of the rest of A Confederacy of Dunces, well, that would depend on your familiarity with New Orleans and your sense of humor.  I haven’t visited the city for a number of years, but his narrative feels real when I read it, and it is very funny.Toole died in 1969 so his Big Easy is set long before Hurricane Katrina.  The absence of references to a catastrophic hurricane and mobile phones are a few things that make the story a little dated, but not by much and certainly not to the point where it interferes with our enjoyment of the story.  Nor are there any references to the Vietnam War, but some of the more paranoid characters worry about them “communiss” being everywhere, and the sexual revolution has begun.  Ignatius, however, is too repressed to participate in the revolution.  Consequently, Toole continuously places Ignatius in situations where his repression results in comic discomfort.  At one point, Ignatius meets “Dorian Greene” (p. 256 of my Grove Press edition) – a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (previously read by this book group) – who invites Ignatius to a party where he dances with another man and is eventually chased into the street by a group of violent lesbians. Wilde isn’t the only literary reference, though.  Toole has a Masters degree in English, as does his main character, so he mentions, for example, Proust, Twain, and Conrad along with some philosophers.  Another reference is to Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel by way of having Ignatius exhibit a variety of bodily functions.Although this is not an epistolary novel per se, Toole effectively incorporates the technique into his writing, particularly in Ignatius’ correspondence with his nemesis and love interest, Myrna Minkoff, a (white) woman who unsuccessfully attempted to provoke a social revolution by singing spirituals to black people.  Ignatius also spends a certain amount of time recording his thoughts on his legal-sized Big Chief tablets that are strewn about his bedroom.  Shortly after beginning a new job at Levy Pants, Ignatius writes:

The only sour note–and here I degenerate into slang to more properly set the mood for the creature whom I am about to discuss–was Gloria, the stenographer, a young and brazen tart.  Her mind was reeling with misconceptions and abysmal value judgments.  After she had made one or two bold and unsolicited comments about my person and bearing, I drew Mr. Gonzalez aside to tell him that Gloria was planning to quit without notice at the end of the day.  Mr. Gonzalez, therupon, grew quite manic and fired Gloria immediately….Actually, it was the awful sound of Gloria’s stake-like heels that led me to do what I did.  Another day of that clatter would have sealed my valve for good.  Then, too, there was all of that mascara and lipstick and other vulgarities which I would rather not catalogue.

Ignatius’ other career consists of pushing a hot dog cart around New Orleans.  He eats many of the hot dogs, of course.

Another character, Mancuso, is a detective who will lose his job unless he can find someone to arrest.  For a while, his assignments consist of wearing disguises while staking out mens’ rooms.  I note this because police departments (and law enforcement personnel in general) frequently appear as characters or subjects in literature.  In fact, the “police procedural” is a separate genre.  Had this book been written closer to today, Toole may have arranged for Mancuso to encounter a certain (now retired) Republican senator from Idaho in one of the rest rooms.  At the beginning of the novel, Mancuso nearly arrests Ignatius, who says:

Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?….[F]amous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, Antichrists, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. 

Not exactly what the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce would like you to read before your visit.  Then again, it cannot be said that things have changed a great deal when the U.S. Justice Department concludes that “[w]hile other departments generally have problems in specific areas, like the use of excessive force, ‘New Orleans has every issue that has existed in our practice to date, and a few that we hadn’t encountered,’ said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/us/18orleans.html?pagewanted=all.

In this case, life and literature seem to be the same, after all.

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