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

The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster and Leonard S. Marcus

The Annotated Phantom TollboothI’m sure I’ve mentioned it a million times (most recently), but The Phantom Tollbooth is my favorite book in the history of ever. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s definitely the book I’ve read the most and that I will continue to re-read on an irregular basis until I die. Every time I read it I get a little happier in my heart.

So when this giant annotated edition showed up unexpectedly in the cataloging department, I was like, “MINE GIMME.” And then had to wait several days while it was, you know, cataloged and processed and sent to the library and whatever, I want my book. And then I got it, and I opened it, and I started reading it, and then it was like learning and I fell asleep. Literally. Several times over the course of reading this book.

Which is weird, because I really did like the foreword, in which I learned, among many other things, that Norton Juster was kind of a jerk back in the day and may or may not have created a secret society whose sole purpose was to reject people from said secret society. Which is the sort of awesome thing I would do if I were kind of a jerk. And I quite enjoyed the annotations, most of which were along the lines of “Here’s what this part of the story is based on” and “Here’s what this illustration could have looked like” and “Did you know this really cool etymological fact?” I did not, but now I do!

I think my problem with the annotations, as with any annotated book or commentary-ed DVD, is that it’s difficult for me to do two things at once, e.g. read the story and learn things about it. So I would find myself spending too much time in the margins and forgetting what was going on in the story, or getting lost in the story and having to backtrack to the annotations. But it was totally worth it for the knowledge that some of the weirder characters and places in the story were invented by Juster just to mess with Jules Feiffer, his friend and illustrator. It really makes a lot of sense.

Recommendation: I would definitely not recommend this for your first experience with my beloved Tollbooth, but if you’ve got a reading or two under your belt I think you’ll find a lot to interest you here.

Rating: 8/10

p.s. Happy Pi Day! This seems like a pretty appropriate book to read today, if you haven’t got other plans…