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