• Friday, January 27th, 2023

John Kennedy Toole was born into a middle-class family in New Orleans in 1937. Since childhood and throughout his life, his domineering mother, Thelma, trained him to value culture and invested considerable effort in his education and later in his affairs, creating friction between them.

After graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, Toole studied English at Columbia University in New York while teaching at Hunter College. He also taught at several colleges in Louisiana. Toole wrote only two books: The Neon Bible, written when he was sixteen years old, published posthumously in 1989 and made into a film in 1995, and A Confederacy Of Dunces, also published posthumously in 1980 and which received the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1981.

During his lifetime, Toole tried hard to have A Confederacy Of Dunces published without success despite receiving praise for his work talent from literary people. This rejection by publishers created a problem with his self-confidence and self-esteem, leading Toole to suffer depression and paranoia. Due to a lack of success in publishing his book, he ended up asphyxiating himself by using a garden hose to pump exhaust fumes into his car in a moment of despair, outside Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1969, at the early age of thirty-one.

After a long period of heavy mourning, Toole’s mother struggled to have her son’s book published. Seven publishers rejected it, but luckily she persuaded the writer and college instructor at Loyola University New Orleans, Walker Percy, to read it. Despite Percy’s appreciation and recognition of the book’s value, he also had great difficulty publishing it. He succeeded after three years of effort to have the right people on his side. The book was finally published, and Percy wrote the novel’s foreword.

Upon publication, A Confederacy Of Dunces proved to be a great success, selling more than one and a half million copies and was translated into several languages. In 2019, the American Public Broadcasting Service ranked the book in “The Great American Read” as fifty-eighth out of the hundred most loved books in the United States.

A Confederacy Of Dunces is a classic character comedy displaying the misadventures of the central figure, Ignatius J. Rilley. The character is based partially on Toole and some situations he experienced, like replacing a friend as a cart vendor for a hot tamale and working at a family-owned cloth factory. Both of these events were included in his novel.

The story takes place in the early nineteen sixties in New Orleans. The thirty-year-old overweight, scruffy, lazy, paranoid Ignatius J. Rilley lives with his conceited mother, Irene, who is constantly pushing him to search for a job. Ignatius has a university degree in Medieval History; he has a high opinion of himself and is very cynical about everything surrounding him. He considers anybody who opposes him a “mongoloid” or uncultured.

He is condescending, discourteous, egocentric, disparaging and intermittently destructive. Nevertheless, Ignatius is described by the author in an exceedingly funny, intriguing way. Equally funny characters surround him, like; Santa Battaglia, Irene’s friend and her nephew, Angelo Mancuso, an incompetent police officer who is constantly frantic in search of a person to arrest. Claude Robichaux, Irene’s suitor and his fear of the “communiss”. Gus Levy, the owner of Levy Pants and his wife, who fancies herself as a psychoanalyst, by using her ill-conceived knowledge on her husband and his octogenarian assistant accountant clerk with dementia, Miss Trixie.

To please his mother and help her pay her debts, Ignatius is employed in only two jobs; the first one is in the office of LevyPants, a run-down company. The owner, Gus Levy, dismisses him after he tries to cause a riot among the factory workers. His second job selling hot dogs from a cart also proves unsuccessful. Ignatius is again sacked for refusing to sell to people he dislikes, and with his addiction to junk food, he ends up eating the hot dogs he is meant to sell.

While employed, Ignatius boasts in his letter exchanges with his New York City rebellious, weird girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, about his imaginary success in order to impress her. Ignatius often refers to Myrna Minkoff as a “minx” because of her constant sexual scrutiny. She is Ignatius’s only friend from their college days in New Orleans and will be the one to rescue him at the end of the book by rushing him to New York.

The well-educated Ignatius prefers the academic philosophy of the Middle Ages, especially the Early Medieval Roman historian and philosopher Boethius, whose doctrines appeal to him. Boethius claimed that villainous people of his time in Rome were recompensed while he was penalised, which struck a chord with Ignatius.

Boethius believed in five elements of ordinary happiness; Wealth, Honour, Power, Fame and Pleasure. Unfortunately, he admits that they are impossible to maintain due to the capricious true nature of fortune (“Miss Fortuna”, the ancient Roman goddess of chance, which Ignatius often mentions as bringing him misfortune). Good fortune deceives because of its lack of durability, says Boethius. Ignatius “writes in one of his Big Chief tablets, with the breakdown of the medieval system, the gods of chaos, lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy … Fortuna’s wheel had turned on humanity, crushing its collarbone, smashing its skull, twisting its torso, puncturing its pelvis, sorrowing its soul”.

The social satire and comedic themes in A Confederacy Of Dunces emphasise the philosophical debate about the irrationality of human beings and their ways of interpreting fate as a recurring subject in literature. This theme is explored in depth by the twentieth-century French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his books, “Literature and Existentialism” and “Existentialism Is A Humanism”.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theory is the opposite of Boethius and his belief in non-lasting Fortune. Sartre’s philosophy is based on personal freedom and responsibility for creating meaning in one’s own life since, for Sartre, “existence precedes essence”.

Before Sartre, the Spanish medieval writer Cervantes (one of Toole’s admired authors and influencers) parodies the medieval principles, behaviour and chivalrous ideal in his famous novel, Don Quixote, published in 1605. Cervantes criticises the conservative social absurdity of Spanish society, its system at the time and its idealistic pursuit of unreachable goals. Cervantes underlines that an individual can be right in his beliefs while the society around him can be wrong, an idea well ahead of its time and with which Ignatius wholeheartedly agrees.

The character of Ignatius J. Rilley is also reminiscent of Alceste, the main character in The Misanthrope, by the seventeen-century French playwright, actor and poet, Molière. Molière portrays Alceste in his famous satirical character comedy as a purist and intolerant who is sickened by the hypocrisy, fourberie, injustice and dishonest human behaviour around him. He is deceived by humankind and fully recovers from his love for the deceitful, disingenuous Célimène. He retires from society and lives in solitude, away from people. A Confederacy Of Dunces became a stage play like The Misanthrope.

The title of A Confederacy Of Dunces is inspired by Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay “Thoughts On Various Subjects, Moral And Diverting”, in which he says: “when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”.

One of the gems in the book, apart from the outstanding, frustrated, intransigent Ignatius J. Rilley, is the hilariously crazy, endearingly naïve dialogues between Irene, Santa, Robichaux and Patrolman Mancuso, combined with the prototype deep southern New Orleans American accent, which adorns the novel and makes it enticing and colourful as well as droll. It is a highly entertaining, well-written literary achievement that, sadly, its highly talented author has not survived to witness and enjoy its success.

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Category: Book Reviews
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