BY COLE NOWLIN John Kennedy Toole’s picaresque classic, A Confederacy of Dunces, is an absurdist-comic masterstroke of a novel. It is the story of Ignatius Reilly, an educated, layabout medieval scholar, living in New Orleans with his mother. Ignatius is an obese, petulant, eloquent man-elephant who belches Boethius and hot dog gas while promenading around New Orleans’ French Quarter. A Confederacy of Dunces meanders through Ignatius’s stumblings around the Big Easy allowing ample room for comic digression and development of other characters. Toole does a masterful job of capturing the slang and patois of the denizens of the French Quarter, and his talent for crafting colorful, entertaining banter is immense. The novel has only whiffs of a concrete plot, it is much more a collection of episodes. Think The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Dunces’ greatness is in these episodic gems.
Toole has a particular knack for maximizing the absurdity and silliness of his characters by placing them in unusual scenarios in which they thrive. The novel is structured so that each section is from a particular character’s point of view and deals with their own particular plotline, which overlap and diverge at points. Toole’s talent for character creation extends beyond Ignatius. There’s the hapless Patrolman Mancuso, there’s Ignatius’s tortured, borderline alcoholic mother Mrs. Reilly, Jones, there’s the bar-hand perpetually encased in cigarette smoke, and Mr. Levy, the disenchanted heir to a pants factory. Each one gets a their turn in the sun. It is through the accretion of these episodic comedies that Toole works the novel into a crescendo. These characters collide in significant ways, altering each others lives and making for an intricate, unexpected ending to an otherwise irreverent novel.
The tangled history and intrigue to the backstory of A Confederacy of Dunces adds another fascinating dimension to the reader’s experience. A native of Louisiana, Toole was a bright, active boy which a knack for mimicry and mockery, a natural storyteller and apparently a nifty dancer. He received a full scholarship to Tulane, where he briefly studied engineering before switching to English, and attended Columbia for graduate school. At 22, he became the youngest professor ever hired by Hunter College, and upon being drafted into the military in 1961 he became a highly-regarded teacher in San Juan. Then JFK was assassinated, an event that impacted him significantly, and it all went downhill for the promising young novelist. He spiraled into a depression, drank heavily, became paranoid, and acted erratically. He had a twisted relationship with his mother that fun-house-mirrors Ignatius’s relationship with Mrs. Reilly. After becoming increasingly distraught and embarrassed when Dunces was rejected multiple times, Toole committed suicide in 1969, outside Biloxi, Mississippi by running a hose from his exhaust pipe into his car. He had a very small funeral, attended only by his parents and his childhood nursemaid.
A Confederacy of Dunces would have never been published without the persistence of Toole’s mother, the one who had always simultaneously pushed him to succeed and pulled him back to her. The book rejected again and again, and then again… and again. Desperate, she sent the manuscript to Walker Percy, famed southern novelist and respected academic, who was impressed enough to use his literary connections to get it published. A Confederacy of Dunces received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, 12 years after Toole’s suicide.
Oh yeah, and if that wasn’t enough intrigue for one book, it’s also cursed. The first person to slap the curse label on the movie-project was Steven Soderbergh. “I think it’s cursed,” he said, referring to his 2005 Dunces project, then going on to say how he doesn’t usually believe in curses. But something about the Dunces project got to him. Maybe because the film has a morbid, pre-Soderbergh history. Paramount had the idea for a Dunces film once, and lined up John Belushi was to play Ignatius. Belushi died shortly thereafter. John Candy was offered the role and died shortly after. Chris Farley and Harris “Divine” Milstead suffered the same fate after they agreed to do the Ignatius role. By then, the Paramount execs got spooked by the body count and pulled the plug on the project. Soderbergh’s 2005 project was the last earnest attempt at a Dunces movie, but every once in a while a rumor about a new project, with a new director and a new lead actor bubbles up. Zach Galifianakis was linked as recently as 2012.
It speaks volumes to Dunces’ popularity and unique blend of transcendent comedy that a movie adaptation is still seriously being kicked around in Hollywood. Comedies are a dime a dozen, so the persistence the normally fickle executives have shown in this project is unusual. But, perhaps, it is for the best that Dunces has never made it to the big screen. Nobody, not Belushi, Candy, Galifianakis, or Ferrell, could come close to capturing the Ignatius of the page, the philosophizing, narcissistic, sweaty man-cow with a temperamental valve.
You can read A Confederacy of Dunces for free HERE.