Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is on my list of stuck-on-desert-island books. It tells the tale of Ignatius Reilly, an obese eccentric medievalist who lives with his mother in the textured world of 1960's New Orleans. Despite the depth of his intellect and education, he has become an self-centered agoraphobe, doted upon by an enabling, beleaguered mother.

But when his mother gets into a bit of legal trouble, Ignatius must leave the comforts of his isolation and get a job. A Confederacy of Dunces is about this train wreck: Ignatius' re-entry into the world. His employment forays, hot dog vending and clerkdom, are hysterical yet it is also tough to bear witness to it all. A rich roster of characters surround Ignatius as this story unfolds, either finding him repugnant or trying to drag him into some legitimate existence.

Despite our experiencing his self-centered cluelessness, we feel for Ignatius as he falls into one folly after another. Perhaps this melancholy wouldn't carry such an edge had author John Kennedy Toole's story been different. In 1969, despondent and unpublished, he took his life on the side of a road. He had been living with his mother in New Orleans. The publishing world, in its boundless genius, had found his work to be unworthy of publication.

Knowing Toole's story, we see how Ignatius, in all his outsized outrageousness embodied the massive disappointment and isolation that living brought upon this author. After Toole's death, his mother took to the task of getting this work published. In 1981, it won a Pulitzer. One can only hope that where ever Toole is, he takes some consolation in that prize.

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