Review: “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

Humor is at the heart of "A Confederacy of Dunces" as Ignatius J. Reilly rants about society, revealing himself as both clown and jester.
Humor is at the heart of “A Confederacy of Dunces” as Ignatius J. Reilly rants about society, revealing himself as both clown and jester.

“Good grief. Is this smut supposed to be comedy?” Ignatius demanded in the darkness. “I have not laughed once. My eyes can hardly believe this highly discolored garbage. That woman must be lashed until she drops. She is undermining our civilization. She is a Chinese Communist agent sent over to destroy us. Please! Someone with some decency get to the fuse box. Hundreds of people in this theater are being demoralized. If we’re all lucky, the Orpheum may have forgotten to pay its electrical bill.”

Ignatius J. Reilly is big in every sense of the world, an oversized bundle of misapplied learning and sloth, prone to screaming at movie theater screens, arguing with strangers and aggravating everyone he comes into contact with. As John Kennedy Toole’s novel begins, Ignatius is on the verge on being arrested for just being himself, an incident that sets into motion accidents, debt, workplace revolts, elderly romance, burlesque shows starring birds and a failed attempt to convince the armies of the world to lay down their arms in favor of what was once referred to as the love that dare not speak its name.

“A Confederacy of Dunces” ends up delivering something akin to a plot, but it’s structured as a series of scenes, generally involving Ignatius arriving somewhere, insulting everyone he encounters and having to flee to avoid arrest or violence. He’s an obnoxious character—perhaps the original man-child—and it’s easy to see how some readers could be overwhelmed by him, not wanting to spend several hundred pages in his presence. But Toole realizes his main character is a clown, and if you can laugh at him as well as with him, it’s enjoyable to spend time in Ignatius’ presence and see how he overreacts next.

The writing itself is very skilled, a mixture of Walt Kelly’s florid regional dialogue, and John Barth’s serious-sounding absurdity. Beyond Ignatius, the book introduces a solid range of characters, each with his or her own voice. There’s the bored, absentee owner of Levy Pants, the business where Ignatius is forced to work—and threatens to ruin—to pay off the damages caused by his mother’s drunken car wreck. There’s the owner, janitor and failed erotic performer from the “Night of Joy” a crummy night club that Ignatius ultimately brings to ruin. There’s his long-suffering mother, who picks up a new friend and boyfriend, both of whom advise her to send Ignatius to the insane asylum. Spending as much time with him as we do, we can’t be sure they’re wrong.

Capturing these characters, Toole’s book uses a variety of voices that writers today likely wouldn’t, everything from stylized African American vernacular to a stereotypical “fairy” of the period. At the same time, the characters behind these voices still succeed, maintaining their own bite and personality, arriving at something that’s much more than caricature.

Ignatius himself is the most cartoonish character in the bunch. He has a nasty tone for women and lipstick, and he’s not fully consistent either, acting squeamish throughout about sex but later showing an aptitude for lust and blackmail. Consistency isn’t necessarily the root of humor, though, and Toole is funny throughout, providing you can get past Ignatius’ voice—and his ceaseless, self-centered rage about the world. I laughed a lot reading this. By the end, when Ignatius started getting wound up again, I even looked forward to seeing where the rant would finish.

“You know, manacles and chains have function in modern life which their fevered inventors must never have considered in an earlier and simpler age. If I were a suburban developer, I would attach at least one set to the walls of every new yellow brick ranch style and Cape Cod split level. When the suburbanites grew tired of television and Ping-Pong or whatever they do in their little homes, they could chain one another up for a while. Everyone would love it. Wives would say, ‘My husband put me in chains last night. It was wonderful. Has your husband done that to you lately?’ And children would hurry eagerly home from school to their mothers who would be waiting to chain them. It would help the children to cultivate the imagination denied them by television and would appreciably cut down on the incidence of juvenile delinquency. When father came in from work, the whole family could grab him and chain him for being stupid enough to be working all day long to support them. Troublesome old relatives would be chained in the carport. Their hands would be released only once a month so they could sign over their Social Security checks. Manacles and chains could build a better life for all. I must give this some space in my notes and jottings.”

“Oh, my dear,” Dorian sighed. “Don’t you ever shut up?”

More “A Confederacy of Dunces” Quotes

“It was a neighborhood that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly—and with very limited funds.”

“I would like very much to know what the Founding Fathers would say if they could see these children being debauched to further the cause of Clearasil. However, I always suspected that democracy would come to this.”

“Now listen, Darlene. Anybody can insult a tramp. These jerks wanna see a sweet, clean virgin get insulted and stripped. You gotta use your head for Chrissake, Darlene. You gotta be pure. I want you to be like a nice, refined girl who’s surprised when the bird starts grabbing at your clothes.”

[On Ignatius’ contemporary reading program] “I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he’s found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.”