Monday, September 12, 2011

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Rating: 3 Stars
1981 Pulitzer Prize Winner
Some books are a delight to read while still retaining literary credibility. There are others that may be a challenge, but in the final analysis prove rewarding. Then there are those that are nothing less than a test in endurance. I would classify ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ under the third category.
Ignatius Reilly is a preposterous ego-maniac with delusions of grandeur, subject to bouts of acute gastrointestinal distress. Possessing an education he doesn’t know what to do with, he rants against the failings of society and expands on his own superiority in journals and pompous theses. Nagged by his much-put-upon mother who is also his enabler, he manages to get first one job than another, where he manages to dissipate more of his time, while giving every employer misguided enough to employ him reasons to regret their decision. He’s obsessed with Myrna Minkoff who may be his true love/nemesis, and is at any rate the only one who seems to have a fairly good handle on the psychological problems assailing him. Will Ignatius, and the myriad other characters the book introduces us to, meet their duly deserved deliverance or come-uppance as it may be? You’ll have to stick around till the end to find out.
This book almost never saw the light of day. A copy of the manuscript was discovered by the author’s mother after his unfortunate suicide in 1969. Thanks to her untiring efforts, the book was finally published in 1980, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.
The Pulitzer Prize…that had me going “Must have been a lean year for fiction" a few pages into the narrative. Despite being unable to warm up to this book, and its gargantuan protagonist, the idea of it winning a Pulitzer is not wholly inconceivable once you’ve waded through its full length. For one thing, the book is set in 1960s New Orleans, and the language has such a twang of authenticity that it has us paying attention even when we don’t want to. Toole effectively captures that New Orleans drawl that lazily lops off the last consonant of most words. The portrayal of African Americans is free of condescension. In fact, though the people populating the novel are by and large loud and disagreeable, they are vibrantly alive. It’s astonishing how much personality he’s able to imbue in each character even in the briefest encounter.
I can hardly blame the editors who initially took a pass on this book; it has the kind of quality that will appeal strictly to literary types, and that’s a limited audience. It seems to have only the vaguest outline of a plot at the outset, and throughout has a tendency to ramble from one tedious scene to another. But the story comes together convincingly at the conclusion. It ended well, and left me glad that it had ended.

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