A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of DuncesI know it’s been a common story lately, but I finished this book for my book club in the parking lot before the meeting started, this time because I didn’t even know there was going to be a meeting until about three days in advance. On top of things, I am.

Even worse, this book starts off so horrible that I was wondering if maybe I wasn’t going to bother to finish this one. I had read through a few dozen pages the first night, and it was all so awful. The main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is a cretin; the dialogue is all written in dialect, which I find tedious going; and there wasn’t really a story to the story except maybe “Ignatius J. Reilly is a cretin.” Goodness, I hate that man.

But then Toole spends some more time with the characters who are not Ignatius J. Reilly, and they make the book so much better. My absolute favorite storyline is about a Patrolman Mancuso, whom we meet at the beginning of the novel as he tries to arrest Ignatius as a “suspicious character” and fails miserably, instead bringing in some old grandpa. Mancuso is thus placed on a probation that involves dressing up in weird costumes and trolling the French Quarter and some men’s bathroom somewhere for actually suspicious characters, except that his outfits inevitably lead to others considering him more than a little suspicious. It’s very Catch-22 and I love it.

Then there’s another plot that involves a guy called Burma Jones who starts as a vagrant and then gets a job paying less than the “minimal wage” because the woman who hires him is like, “Sweet, a black vagrant that I can threaten into working for cheap!” so then he decides to sabotage her whole weird night club because why not? This storyline involves a cockatoo, also, so what’s not to like?

There are a few more stories floating around, too, with characters of varying degrees of dislikability — seriously, it’s difficult to sympathize with any of the characters and I think it’s a testament to Toole’s writing that I still cared what happened to them, even Ignatius. The stories all sort of weave and circle around Ignatius being a cretin until they come together in an incredibly satisfying way. The book ends a bit later and a bit less satisfyingly, but rather appropriately for the tone of the book, I think. I highly enjoyed this.

At book club, we talked about how this book was apparently not edited (or edited very little?) from manuscript to published novel. My friend Julie was like, “Whyyyyyyyy couldn’t they have edited this down like a hundred pages it’s sooooo long and repetitive,” whereas I was like, “Wow, this writing is tight for not having been edited.” I felt, and still feel, that although, yes, the book tended to drag in places as Toole reiterated pieces of storylines, it was all in the service of making the eventual meeting of the plots more hilarious. It’s like that comedy rule thing where you say something once, and it’s funny, and then you say it ten times and it’s not, and then you say it ten more times and it’s funny again. I think this book came around to funny again, but apparently you may not?

I also learned at book club that this book is sort of cult-y, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show cult-y, but as I’m really not a fan of the Rocky Horror shenanigans I think I’m going to enjoy this book like I do, say, anything by Monty Python. I liked it, I’ll definitely read it again sometime, and I’ll be adding many new quotes to my everyday speech. (“Leave the board out of this!”)

Rating: 9/10

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2 thoughts on “A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

  1. Steph says:

    So glad you stuck with this one because it really is one of my favorites! I agree that Ignatius is a whole lot of character, but I think Toole really nails him in terms of voice and mannerisms. I mean, I’d hate to meet him in real life, but on page, he was just larger than life.

    And I think you’re right in terms of comparing the humor to Catch-22. You really have to have an appreciation for the absurd to love this one, I think.

    • Alison says:

      I’m glad, too! My fellow book-clubbers did not have as good a time as I did, but I think I have a better appreciation for absurdity than they do, or at least absurdity in large doses.

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