No other book is as infectiously humorous and as enjoyably absurd as A Confederacy of Dunces. I would like to have met its author, John Kennedy Toole, someday, if it wasn't for the misfortune of his suicide eleven years prior to the publication of this cult classic-turned-mainstream sensation. I think this is the third Pulitzer award-winning novel that I have read since Middlesex and The Orphan Master's Son, and so far the streak of such critically-acclaimed pieces has yet to let me down. It took me a whole week to finish this book only because I had X-Men comics books squeezed in to read and review in between, but if they weren't there, I can honestly say that I would've finished Toole's book in just two days because even the grimy parts are so riveting.
This was a gripping tale akin to superb situational comedies in television, composed of an ensemble of not-always-likable characters who misunderstand the intentions and needs of others including their own. That, to me, is the charm of A Confederacy of Dunces. Its pages were principally filled with people who are vivid and alive because its author has grounded them in realism that is not often flattering in portrayal and yet the characterizations remain curiously honest nonetheless.
Now I just found out that this is actually what one calls a "picaresque novel" which is defined as "a genre of prose fiction which depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire." Think of this book's protagonist as the American equivalent of Don Quixote but a much more pitiful version--a breathing obese man of paradoxical inclinations and eccentric opinions about himself and the society named Ignatius J. Reily.
"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
He is disillusioned and uniquely self-entitled; someone whose education and highbrow level of thinking have contributed to his bafflingly misanthropic views concerning his fellowmen and their vices and sins he perceived to be their only defining qualities. He is filled with resentment for the moral decay of his hometown, New Orleans during the 1960's, and attributes that to the various groups of minorities whom he believes corrupts the sanctity of the place. As outlandishly entertaining as he may be, I found myself growing increasingly weary and frustrated of him, especially when it came to the lamentations he'd write in his journal. He's the kind of grating idealist who puts more importance on his ideals and is comfortable upholding them in spirit only, and never does anything remotely valuable for it in practice. However, every time he would exercise some form of civil action, it often leads to clumsy and ridiculous scenarios which Toole writes about with such great wit and humor.
Comparing him to the endearing Don Quixote is an injustice of sorts because Ignatius is truly appalling because he is unmindful of how obnoxiously he treats his own mother, Irene, and the array of other secondary characters around him. For all his self-awareness and staunchly conservative views about morality, as well as his insistence on clinging to antique philosophical world views, Ignatius does not possess any kind of social intelligence whatsoever. I would have guessed that he might possibly belong somewhere in the autism spectrum. He is overtly meticulous of his clothing (he wears the same thing every day; that infuriating green hunting cap and red sweater) but ignores other forms of hygiene and personal neatness. He is an insufferable buffoon whose only redeeming facet is that he makes me laugh and I can't stop reading about the hilarious misunderstandings he gets caught up in.
The narrative of the book focuses mostly on Ignatius' "struggles" to find a decent job and the laughable ways he would sabotage his own means of livelihood because of his inherent tendency to impose intellectual superiority over the people he meets in workplaces. He is inconsiderate about everyone; he has low opinions about everything especially when they contradict his rigid moral codes, and he is essentially a hypocrite who will constantly fail to acknowledge himself as one even if he stares at himself in the mirror. He trivializes real social issues in exchange for his imagined ones which were so tone-deaf and goddamn outdated. His disillusion is only matched by his on-and-off college girlfriend Myrna Minkoff who considers herself a radical activist but is just as blinded and superficial in her crusades for social change. That being said, I enjoyed him endlessly as the main character. He was every bit of fascinating as much as a vehicular accident I cannot turn away from as it crashes over and over again.
Other characters were also so interesting to read because they were so well-defined by their mannerisms, language and thoughts every time they appear in the pages, often doing something crazy and desperate yet undeniably human and sympathetic that would earn chuckles from me every now and then. In fact, the most noticeable and commendable trait Toole deserves to be praised with is the way he creates lasting impressions on these characters through the way he makes them speak and communicate. Like any great satire, A Confederacy of Dunces relies a lot on situational ironies which are sprinkled in the scenes where characters would discuss certain things or be engaged in mundane-turned-bizarre scenarios that one cannot help but find them infectious and clever. Toole has a dark sense of humor yet a knack for impressive comedic timing in the way he sets up these situations. If this was ever adapted for a TV show or film, I think that all the dialogues should be kept intact. They're the novel's strongest suit.
Toole's own mother had insisted on getting this book published after her son's death, and I'm pleased that she persevered in that pursuit because it would have been a literary crime to keep this novel away from public consciousness. I loved every chapter and detail offered in . I have never been so touched or moved into a fit of giggles like this. As annoyed as I am by Ignatius, his journal ramblings dripping in condescencion and sarcasm have been a source of joy for me. The bastard also has a lucky streak. I cannot tell you how infuriating it had been that after all the lives he accidentally ruined or made worse, Ignatius manages to walk out on everyone, unscathed. What a lucky son of a bitch.
But I wouldn't want to spoil you of the journey ahead of you if you happen to decide to adapt some good 'taste and decency' (as Ignatius himself would phrase it) to pick up this novel and experience the absurdities unfold for yourself. The front row seat to A Confederacy of Dunces will be the most engaging albeit confusing experience you will ever have in your life so I suggest you don't miss out. The book is vibrant and memorable; Toole's delivery is grounded by realistic characters accompanied by this heightened sense of entertainment that was only made possible through the perfect blended style of comedy and drama which its author both lovingly and crudely instilled in the text.