BY MIKE BEEMAN
This is our last entry in the Read This Book Now series. Drop what you’re doing right now, and read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Then read the other entries in this series here. Keep your eyes peeled for our next series, starting up this summer.
I nearly missed out on this book for the same reason I miss out on a lot of books, movies and music: If too many people like something, part of me starts to think it must suck. I don’t know why, but if more than three people, or any one person on television, recommend something I start rolling my eyes. Maybe it’s because I think that if something appeals to everyone it must be so watered-down and vanilla that people with no taste at all can enjoy it. The point is, I’m usually wrong and miss out on cool things. For this reason, I heard about A Confederacy of Dunces long before I read it. A friend demanded I read Confederacy repeatedly, and after finally reading it, I’m ashamed to say how long he badgered me before his recommendation took. So if you haven’t read this book for the same reason, do yourself a favor and get a copy. You won’t be sorry.
This book is hard to categorize, or even sum up, which may be why it’s hard to recommend. It’s nearly plotless, and the main character, Ignatious Rielly, is one of the most obnoxious characters in literature. Here’s a brief except from the opening scene, where a police officer asks the conspicuous and elephantine Ignatious for identification at a shopping mall. To which Ignatious replies:
“Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capitol of the civilized world?” Ignatius bellowed over the crowd in front of the store. “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, Antichrists, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. If you have a moment, I shall discuss the crime problem with you, but don’t make the mistake of bothering me.”
This short exchange tells us everything about the character, and this book. Ignatius has a ready list of “degenerates” -everyone from Antichrists to litterbugs and lesbians- a group in which, although he repeats it moments before beating the same police officer with a roll of sheet music and lute string, he does not recognize himself. It is his arrogance and self-delusion which drive this novel and, ironically, what makes him so sympathetic.
Describing the attraction of watching someone like Reilly is as difficult as describing the novel. A Confederacy of Dunces is a throw-back, the same as its protagonist: There is no real plot-arc, no meta-fictional devices, and it is not tied to any celebrities or historical event (except perhaps, now, the cannon of pre-Katrina New Orleans literature, the same as The Moviegoer, whose author saved this novel from oblivion). Trying to apply the Heroe’s Journey Template to this novel would be as absurd as Ignatious -which, along with the curse, might explain why it has never been filmed. It is a picturesque series of events, loosely connected, involving charters so weird in their own unique ways each seems entirely real. Reilly is the first character we meet, but his supporting cast often steals the show, and upstaging a giant, bellowing, arrogant anachronism is no easy task.
I think anyone who recommends this book does so urgently, as I do, and so the mania can seem off-putting. So here’s a link to the book on Amazon. Please don’t buy it there. Instead, go into the “Look Inside” function and browse the first few pages, then buy it at a local book store when you can’t stop reading. Do it right now. Before you miss out on something cool.