13 November 2011

Ignatius Revisited, or Toole’s ‘Confederacy of Dunces’

Canal Street, where our tale begins

John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces enjoys a sterling critical and popular reputation, yet to this reader its success has seemed more corrective than deserved: unable to find a publisher for the novel, Toole committed suicide in 1969, and only when his grieving mother stalked another, more famous (and vastly superior) Louisiana novelist, Walker Percy, did the book see the light of day, in 1980. Suddenly we discovered an overlooked masterpiece — or so I was told.

Percy’s imprimatur was all I needed to seek out Confederacy, but I couldn’t get very far in my reading: the quirks and comedy struck me as painfully labored (the very criticism my own attempts at humor most often elicited), with little else to support them, and I set the book aside, picking it up from time to time, as if to see whether the prose had somehow changed in the intervals.

John Kennedy Toole

What did change was Confederacy’s reputation: the book has gone from succès d’estime to sacred writ, a Bible of lunacy and a manifesto of defiant eccentricity, in the eyes of many readers I admire. Not having read Confederacy meant missing out on a good joke — or so it seemed. And so I returned to its pages yet again.

Having finished the book, three decades after I bought it, I am still more bemused than amused. I can understand why so many people take Confederacy’s protagonist, the gargantuan Ignatius J. Reilly, to heart. But I can understand, too, why nobody wanted to publish the book in the first place.

That Confederacy languished so long in obscurity isn’t the fault of Robert Gottlieb, the noted editor who tried to help Toole whip the manuscript into shape at Random House but surrendered at last, complaining that the book lacked a point. Pace, Mr. Gottlieb, but that assessment isn’t entirely accurate. The picaresque plot ably reflects Ignatius’ favored philosophy: that chance (or, as Ignatius would put it, Fortuna) rules our lives. A single, apparently random incident brings together all the major characters, creating or revealing connections, and it drives the rest of the story. Plenty of novels succeed with less point than that.

The rest is character study and local color, but the book is like Ignatius himself, shapeless and often overbearing. Some characters, notably the pants-magnate’s wife, Mrs. Levy, are so exaggerated that they’re no longer plausible and therefore not terribly funny, much less interesting. While several of the characters, notably Ignatius’ mother and her sidekick, Santa Battaglia, grace the pages with comic dialogue in exquisitely rendered local accents, Ignatius himself is lingered upon well past the point of our “getting” him, and this reader, at least, couldn’t hear Ignatius’ speech in any recognizable way, though I’ve known a fair number of people who resembled him.

Doris Day, Ignatius’ favorite movie star.
She’s never identified by name in the book, but who else could it be?

Ignatius is a fine character, yes, and he’s surely the reason for Confederacy’s enduring appeal. But Toole gorges us on him, with no more restraint than Ignatius shows for hot dogs and Doris Day movies. Ignatius careens from one marginal New Orleans community to another, ever on the lookout for his own apotheosis, but his debacles are disappointingly small-scale, and the reader has to wait a long, long time before getting any sense that this character will develop or even move forward; my patience wore thin, as it has done every time I picked up the book.

On the Internet, where everything is true, one learns that Toole’s friend, a college professor named Bob Byrne, inspired many of Ignatius’ principal attributes, yet at this remove I’m inclined to see a great deal of autobiography in him: an intellectual not quite so clever as he imagines, a mama’s boy, a failed writer, monstrously egocentric, neurotically sheltered both in his mother’s home and in medieval philosophy, hopelessly and yet defiantly out of step with his times. (And when I say “autobiography,” I mean both Toole’s and my own. I feel quite sure that Ignatius is destined to become an opera fan.)*

If no one wanted to publish A Confederacy of Dunces in Toole’s lifetime, it’s because the book is a mess — still to this day, though it’s unpopular to say so. Ultimately, the book required an extra backstory — the mother’s crusade and Percy’s intervention — to take off. To the extent that Toole achieves something epic and admirable in Ignatius’ louche grandeur, the book’s subsequent success is easy enough to understand. Readers turn to Ignatius as a validation or an excuse, if not quite a justification, for their own foibles.

In his introduction to the novel, Percy does Toole no favors in comparing Ignatius to Quixote, for Cervantes (to say nothing of Rabelais) did this sort of thing much better. But who reads them anymore? For modern readers, Ignatius strikes home. He’s the patron saint of excess — and Toole is his most fervent acolyte.

Let us drink to the lees, as Ignatius would have us do.

*NOTE: That said, there’s an aspect less than benign to this story, innocent though it may have seemed when Toole began writing it. After all, at the very moment when Ignatius and his intellectual delusions and political pretensions are prowling the streets of the French Quarter, so was Lee Harvey Oswald.

(This is not to suggest, however, that I identify with Oswald.)


Michael Leddy said...

I was once very high on Confederacy, but it’s true for me too — the novel doesn’t wear well. I remember though when I last read it being struck more by the pathos than by the funny.

Victor Buono’s a good pick for Ignatius. I’d vote though for Laird Cregar.

William V. Madison said...

Well, Michael, of COURSE you'd vote for Laird Cregar -- aren't you the National Campaign Chairman for the Laird Cregar Party?

Seriously, now that you mention it, he'd have been a grand Ignatius. It's interesting to read the names of some of the actors who've been considered for the much-postponed film: they veer from the sublime (John Belushi, John Candy) to the what-were-they-thinking (Chris Farrell, Will Ferrell).

Lily Tomlin was once lined up to play Mrs. Reilly, it seems, and that missed opportunity does fill me with tremendous regret. Imagine!

If they ever do make a movie, I'm hoping that Doris Day can be lured out of retirement -- to play Miss Trixie.