Sometimes my friend Laura listens to the recommendations I give her–and when she does, she’s always happy. What can I say? I gots good taste. I got her hooked on everything from British TV (a Doctor Who fandom to last centuries & Little Britain) and the podcasts she listens on her way home from work (Invisibilia and More Perfect). But nothing has made me happier than when she took my reading advice. On the morning commute we shared together, I watched her bookmark travel further and further into A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
When I first read A Confederacy of Dunces, there were moments in which I lost control over my body and threw the book across the room in a fit of laughter. But in this case, BOY did it ever. The book caused me to cringe and laugh in such rapid succession that my stomach hurt afterward. It’s the kind of book that can cure you of whatever illness you might have by making you just have SUCH a good time.
Toole’s book follows the one-of-a-kind Ignatius Reilly, who, when we first meet him, is living in his mother’s hosue surrounded by his own filth, writing a long work about Boethius, a scholar of the Middle Ages that Ignatius personally identifies with. Ignatius sees himself at odds with the rest of his New Orleans community. He’s haughty, arrogant, and lives in a world entirely of his own imagination. His intellectualism has gone awry, sprouting horns of self-righteousness and ignorance towards his own personality and situation. In Ignatius’s perception of reality, everyone else is an “abomination” and only he holds the key to the proper way of existence. We all know people who walk around like that–but no one does it with as much bumbling, outrageous, offensive outbursts as him.
Of course, the narrator is entirely on Ignatius’s side, miraculously. It’s that refusal to acknowledge that Ignatius is a madman on the part of the narrator that makes our OWN discovery of it so, so amusing.
In addition to following Ignatius’s attempts at employment (the guy can’t resist any type of food, and has no idea how a business runs. so guess what happens when he works at a hot dog stand?), we also follow a few other plot lines that end up interweaving. It’s the Tom Jones of the 20th century. It’s a modern romp. Each of the characters is ridiculous, but none so unique and superb as Ignatius Reilly (although his very aggressive New York love interest is a close second). There’s a reason that there are statues crafted in Ignatius’s honor in New Orleans. He’s a character that IS larger than the words that contain him–he comes up in statue form!
This book won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. Unfortunately, Kennedy Toole committed suicide. The book was found in his room by his mother, and she read it and saw the glimmering genius apparent in its pages. She sent it to the writer and professor Walker Percy (he’s also a great writer) and he took it on as well. So even the book itself was published by people passing it on–infectious word of mouth.
I wish more so-called “literary” books, and certainly books as intelligent as this one, could be as unabashedly hilarious. After one reads Hitchhiker’s Guide and Confederacy where is there to turn?
While I want this post to be about A Confederacy of Dunces and that you all should read it, it’s also inevitably about the experience of sharing a book with someone. I’m never more touched than when I tell someone I think they’d like a book, and then they read that book. Laura and I laughed over passages and engaged in a totally old fashioned and delightfully nerdy celebration of the written word. Of course, she might not totally know what she’s gotten into, as I’m devising a whole list of recommendations for what to read next. Once you start reading, might as well keep trying to do as much as you can.
ESPECIALLY when there are books this good in the world.