Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Confederacy of Dunces


I first read John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces not too long after its initial publication and I remember being particularly saddened by the fact that such a talented writer had committed suicide even before his first book had been published. I found it incredibly sad that the world had been deprived of such a talent and wondered what might have been. But, despite the fact that the book has been on my shelves for more than two decades, and all my good intentions, I never got around to revisiting the book until the last couple of weeks. What finally got me off center and back into Ignatius J. Riley's world was finding an audio version of the book at my local library.

A Confederacy of Dunces centers on Ignatius J. Riley, a 30-year old, over-educated mama's boy who still lives at home and refuses to work for a living, preferring instead to live off of his mother's tiny income. And those are his good points. He was further described in Library Journal as "a fat, flatulent, gluttonous, loud, lying, hypocritical, self-deceiving, self-centered blowhard who masturbates to memories of a dog and pretends to profundity when he is only full of beans." All true enough, but the fun begins when Ignatius is suddenly arrested for vagrancy by a suspicious New Orleans policeman desperate to impress his police department superiors.

Ignatius soon finds himself half-heartedly looking for gainful employment in order to help pay the damages caused when Irene, his often-tipsy mother backed into the wall of a downtown New Orleans business. Eventually Ignatius manages to find work at two different businesses desperate enough to hire even someone like him. Levy Pants and Paradise Vendors, Inc. would never be the same after Riley's few weeks as a Levy Pants file clerk and a Paradise Vendors "weenie vendor."

Along the way, we meet a cast of New Orleans characters who, for one reason or another, forever have their lives changed by coming into contact with Mr. Riley: Patrolman Mancuso who so desperately wants to arrest someone, anyone, in order to get back in uniform; Miss Trixie, near 80-years old and wondering why in the world she's not allowed to retire from Levy Pants; Darlene, the stripper who's highest ambition is to work on stage with her pet bird; Miss Lee, Darlene's employer, who has a nice little dirty picture business going on the side; Dorian Greene, a blatantly gay man who hosts a disastrous party for his friends with Ignatius as the main attraction; Gomez, the pathetic office manager at Levy Pants; Mr. Levy, inheritor and hater of the family business; Myrna, the northerner "girlfriend" whom Ignatius loves to hate; and Jones the old black man coerced by Miss Lee to work at the strip club at way less than minimum wage and who gained his ultimate revenge.

It took me a while to warm up to Ignatius J. Riley because, obviously, the man doesn't have a whole lot going for him. I actively disliked him at first but he was so intriguing a character that I kept turning pages until I came to realize that my disgust for the man had turned into a strange hope that he would somehow manage to prevail in his attempts to remain a "free agent" in the world, someone above life's everyday troubles. By the end of the novel I even found myself liking the man despite his skills at so selfishly manipulating everyone around him.

The audio version of A Confederacy of Dunces is read by Barrett Whitener who adds much to the book's characters by supplying them with the various ethnic accents required to fully bring them to life. In particular, Mr. Whitener made me laugh just about any time that he bellowed "Oh my god" in Riley's voice because I knew that another Ignatius J. Riley rant was on the way.

John Kennedy Toole was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for A Confederacy of Dunces when it was finally published. What a shame that he was gone too soon to see it.

Rated at: 4.5

15 comments:

  1. This is on my bookshelf right now waiting to be read. I'm glad to see you rated it highly. I really need to get to reading it.

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  2. I loved this book but it's been a long time since I read it -- I'll have to re-read it.

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  3. I'll be interested to hear what both of you think about the book, both on a first exposure to it (Matt) and a second one (Katya).

    The main character seems to repulse some readers and they give up on the book fairly early on...as I almost did the first time around. It is very dark comedy, really.

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  4. you know the way you reacted to the main character is really similar to how many react to the protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye... read that one?

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  5. This one is on my bookshelf. Another book that I've been meaning to read. I've been trying to figure out how to live without sleep. That might be the only way I ever finish all the books I want to in this lifetime!!

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  6. Arukiyomi, it's been so long since I've read Catcher in the Rye that, frankly, I remember very little about its main character or plot. I'm curious now, so I'll have to take a look.

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  7. Stephanie, I know what you mean...and they just keep coming don't they? :-)

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  8. I adore this novel, and I'm sure an audiobook of it would be magical. I'm going to be on the lookout for this audio version. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

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  9. The audio version is great fun, Ted. I probably should have emphasized that in my review even more than I did. Ignatius really comes to life this way...

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  10. I read this years ago too and, though I don't remember as much about its protagonist as I'd like to, I do remember wanting to give up on it pretty early on. By the time I turned the last page, I was ready to jump up and look for his next book...until I read the page in the back which explained Toole's tragic death. It boggles the mind to think about what other great books this man would have written had he lived to write them.

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  11. Is a movie being made of this novel? Does it seem filmable, other than having a colorful and memorable character like Ignatius?

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  12. I agree, Lynn. I can never look at the book's cover without thinking of the tragedy that was John Kennedy Toole. I've never read anything about his personal life but I've often wondered what drove him to suicide and whether or not he was anything like Ignatius J. Riley.

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  13. I've never heard anything about the book being filmed, bybee. I wonder how it would work on the big screen. I'm afraid that they movie would turn into a farcial comedy rather than the rather sad tale that it really was. It seems difficult for dark comedy to be correctly translated to film for some reason.

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  14. As a writer my style and content is forever changed after reading 'Dunces.'

    I had prided myself on floral, pedantic rhetoric instead of speaking what's on my mind. JKT was a scholar who poured out his soul and frustrations in caloric fiction.

    If one is to 'digest' anything out of his effort, let it be understood his fear of failure ate him up. My stomach growls thinking about what I finishing up just now...

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  15. That's a great point, Anonymous...Toole was a great storyteller and his style perfectly fit his story. Readers everywhere mourn his loss.

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