Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Confederacy of Dunces


I used a recent trip to New Orleans as occasion to re-read one of my favorite books of all time, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, written in the late 1960s and then abandoned after a large New York publishing house sat on the manuscript after several revisions, and Toole then committed suicide in 1969. His mother lugged the manuscript to Walker Percy at Loyola University in New Orleans, who had published quickly after reading it, and the novel won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A formative book for me, having read it (in all its surrounding mystique and legend and romance) shortly after it was published. I'd never re-read it, though: it was one of those books that affected me so strongly I shrugged off any impulse to try to re-create that first wondrous reading.

Since then, a cottage industry has developed around the book, its author, its origins. There is a memoir (Ken and Thelma by Joel Fletcher), a biography (Ignatius Rising by Rene Nevils), a theatrical piece, statues in New Orleans, blogs dedicated to the New Orleans streets and alleys and buildings where the book takes place, even a movie made of Neon Bible, a slim novel written by Toole as a teenager. Must search out of all of it.

For re-reading the book, mostly in New Orleans, was a delight. It is a satire of the best sort -- no one escapes the sword. Swiftian in its outrage, Rabeleisian in its low comedy, Confederacy sends up communism, urban development, the Renaissance, the 20th century, poor Southern whites, poor Southern Black, homosexuals, college campuses. There is an amazing sub-plot where Ignatius enlists the help of a gay man from the French Quarter, hoping to infiltrate the US military (and thereafter, armed forces around the world) with homosexuals, and have them take over and spend all the time and effort currently spend on war, on celebrations and fashion. The Peace Movement! Sort of an inversion of Dont Ask Don't Tell.

In some ways too, the book is almost tragic, as Ignatius' mother plots to have him committed to a mental institution at the end of the story, only to have Ignatius barely escape when his old college girlfriend Myrna Minkoff (herself a genius satirical caricature of feminism, free love, radical politics, and Jewishness) shows up and spirits him away in her car back to New York City.

There is Jones, the black janitor/doorman at the Night of Joy bar in the French Quarter. He is the closest thing to a hero in the novel.

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