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A Confederacy of Dunces
Stock image - cover art may vary
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0807106577
ISBN-13: 9780807106570
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
Release Date: May, 1980
Length: 338 Pages
Weight: 1.4 pounds
Dimensions: 9.1 X 6.1 X 1.2 inches
Language: English

A Confederacy of Dunces

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"A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at t...
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Customer Reviews

  An outstanding comedy

A friend loaned me a copy of this book over twenty years ago, telling me that this was a novel I simply must not miss reading. Not quite believing his enthusiastic praise, I opened the book and was introduced to the gargantuan, flatulent, self-important, arrogantly pseudo-intellectual person of Ignatius J. Reilly. By the end of the first paragraph, I was intrigued. By the end of the first scene, in which he nearly causes a riot in front of D.H Holmes, I was hopelessly hooked. In the decades that have passed since that first reading, "Confederacy" has steadily ascended my list of all-time favorite books, becoming more deliciously funny with each reading.

Ignatius is an unforgettable character. Ensconced in his ramshackle room, strewn with Big Chief tablets filled with invective toward the twentieth century and his longing for the good old days of the Dark Ages, he brews his indictment of modernity and of anything and everything he considers lacking in "theology and geometry". Unfortunately for him, his mother's drunken driving brings the threat of legal action when she demolishes part of a building and he is faced with the appalling need to Go To Work. Needless to say, the working world isn't quite prepared for this Don Quixote in a hunting cap.

Along the way, there are a number of equally priceless supporting characters, each a gem in its own right. The hopelessly inept Patrolman Mancuso sniffles his way about the seedier parts of New Orleans, in his outrageous "undercover" costume of the day, sadly hoping to arrest some "suspicious character". Miss Lana Lee, of the quite inappropriately named Night of Joy bar, provides, um, charity work for the orphans, discreetly wrapped in plain brown paper and collected by a local hoodlum. Then there's Jones, who plots his revenge against Lana's tyranny as an employer from within a cloud of blue cigarette smoke. All of these and others are superbly woven together in this grand comic tale, their stories and fates drawn together by Fortuna's wheel, as Ignatius might say.

As others have remarked, Toole's suicide pre-empted what likely would have been a wonderful literary career. An unpublished author at his death, Toole's only other work is a short novel called "The Neon Bible", written while he was in his teens. That book is sufficiently inferior to "Confederacy" that I have never bothered to buy my own copy. However, I am now on my fourth copy of this novel, and expect it to continue to be a book I revisit time and again.

Most highly recommended.
  A masterful job of describing the delusional

As if there weren't enough reviews of this book, I'll add mine: In a word, wonderful. The "protagonist" is one Ignatius J. Reilly, a fat, pompus windbag who is over-educated, but refuses to work, preferring to stay home and drive his mother nuts while writing his never-ending treastie on the awfulness of the modern world -- "modern" meaning anything since early Medieval times! Thanks to his mother running into a building while under the influence, Ignacious has to go to work. You can just about imagine the kind of worker he is, versus the kind of worker he really is! You wouldn't want to leave this guy alone with a typewriter, or even a hot-dog cart, for a minute.

John Kennedy Toole does not just depict Ignatius's delusions, but brilliantly depicts everyone else's delusions, too. His novel shows us that none of us operate in a concrete reality -- our perceptions are deluded because of our beliefs, worldview, past experiences, etc. This book should be assigned, or at least recommended, reading for any college course dealing with post-Modern thought.

  It was the best of books, it was the worst of books

I have looked through many of these reviews, and no one has yet explained why many reviewers think it is the best book ever, and many think it is the worst book ever. Here is my attempt.

Why some people laugh till they choke

Ignatius is a physical comedian. He follows in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Victorian classic "Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the dog," the Marx brothers, the Pink Panther movies ("The Return of the Pink Panther" is the best), and Mr. Bean. So if you laughed uncontrollably at Chief Inspector Dreyfus's facial tick because he wanted to kill Clouseau, if you laughed when Chaplin kicked the policeman in the pants and ran, or when Mr. Bean accidentally popped a bag of vomit over a sleeping passanger's face, then you are more likely to enjoy this book. It also helps if you were an obedient student and learned all those vocabulary words in English class, because Ignatius is a very learned, pompous slapstick comedian.

What proof do I have of this? Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) once made a documentary about the aspects of physical comedy (made in 1992, the TV series was called "Funny Business," the episode was called "Laughing Matters", the relevant sections on Youtube are parts 4 and 5). In that lecture, he said that the personality traits of the physical comedian are the following.
1. He is alienated from the society around him: Ignatius stays in his room in his mother's house.
2. He is childish: Ignatius thinks his mother should still support him at age 30.
3. He has to fight with ordinary objects: Ignatius cannot even ride in a bus.
4. His body can be humorous by itself: Did I mention Ignatius is obese?
5. He is uncivilized and cannot or will not conform to social rules: Ignatius's first act in the book is to hit a policeman in the head with a rolled up sheet of music.
6. He is a threat to respectable people: On first seeing him, the policeman immediately tries to arrest him. Even a strip-tease club wants to get rid of him.
7. He mocks authority and politeness: Ignatius is rude and heaps scorn on everyone.
8. He spreads confusion: Ignatius causes the climactic chaos of the book.
9. ... I cannot tell you the ninth quality without giving away the ending. But the book conforms to it as well.

Why some people hate the book

While there has been some smirking and name calling, it is obvious that some who hate the book are quite literate and are not at all dunces. ACoD haters include those who say they like Catch-22, Ground Hog's Day, and other humor classics. Remember, eight publishers rejected it, and even Walker Percy didn't realize it was good until about page 50. Most good books sparkle long before that point. Why are its qualities sometimes hard to see?

Although Ignatius is a physical comedian, his humor is not lightning fast like Charlie Chaplin or the Marx brothers. It is hard to quote a funny line, because each line in isolation isn't that funny. They are only funny in the total context of the story. Catch-22 is a book that is hundreds of pages of variations of the same joke. If you liked the basic joke, you love the book. If you hated the joke, you hate the book. With ACoD, if you recognize Ignatius as a slow-burning physical comedian early on--and you find his stately slapstick funny--you will love every page of the book. If you either fail to get the character at all or do not find his version of slapstick funny, you will hate the book.

The book was the first attempt to publish by the author, and it is bit rough. The repetition of metaphors and phrases can be annoying, especially if you are not already laughing. Ignatius is described by animal metaphors repeatedly. He says the same phrases repeatedly. There are very few one-liners by any of the characters. The complicated multi-story plot unfolds slowly. If you are not already in on the joke while this is going on, it is painful. If you are, it is delicious. That is my explanation for the love/hate reviews.

A further theory

I am writing a scholarly article about this book. I have searched the scholarly literature high and low and have not found any other writings on my idea. I have thought about explaining my main concept here, to establish a claim of priority, but I have decided against it. Instead, I will give a brief explanation of an side claim, to demonstrate some of the drift of my thinking. So here it goes.

Ignatius complains throughout the book about Fortune's Wheel. In medieval thinking, everyone was attached to a wheel of fortune. Sometimes you were up and had good fortune; other times you were spun down into ill fortune. Good things happen to bad people and vice versa, so luck does not follow worldy ideas of justice. Or to put it plainly: Life ain't fair.

But in the book, Ignatius himself acts as fortune's wheel. When he arrives at the Night of Joy the second time, Lana and George are in good fortune, and Burma Jones and Darlene have ill fortune. Through Ignatius, their luck is reversed. When Ignatius appears at Levy Pants, Mrs. Levy is controlling both Mr. Levy and Miss Trixie. Through Ignatius, Mr. Levy gets the upper hand, Mrs. Levy has lost power, and Miss Trixie can finally retire. This spherical man acts as a catalyst, spinning the fortunes of the other characters. When Mancuso first interacts with Ignatius, his luck turns bad, but in the end, Mancuso has triumphed, and Lana is off to prison, where she will need some consolation of philosophy.

Boethius wrote in the Consolation of Philosophy that fortune hands out luck that we cannot understand in this world, but which is part of the overall plan of divine justice. Instead of divine justice, Ignatius rolls his circular form through the world, and in his farcical chaos he rights wrongs of this world and brings worldy, poetic justice to the characters. He is fortune's wheel.

Note from December 2008: In the article by Richard Simon (1994). "John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy: Fiction and repetition in A Confederacy of Dunces." Texas Studies in Literature & Language, 36(1), page 113, in a footnote, Simon argues that Ignatius represents Fortuna herself. My claim is slightly different: that Ignatius is her wheel.
  A Comic Masterpiece

This book is quite simply a comic masterpiece, a novel brimming with original characters, absurd situations, and at its heart a blustery, vulnerable mama's boy named Ignatius J. Reilly. He is one of the most startlingly original characters in modern fiction, and his efforts at hitting the job market after his mother smashes their car will leave you in stitches.

A word on the history of the novel is worth mentioning here. The author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide in 1969, and his mother found the hand-written manuscript in her son's papers. She brought them to a publisher, who dreaded having to read even a portion of the work and to notify Toole's mother that it stunk. Instead, he was blown away by Toole's draft, and the rest is history. The novel earned him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, and it is universally hailed by critics.

Trying to summarize the plot is impossible - the book cannot really be categorized. Ignatius is an over-educated oaf who stays home filling his writing tablets full of his offbeat musings on ancient history, which he plans to organize and publish some day but which presently reside all over his bedroom floor. Rome wasn't built in a day he reminds himself. He cites in footnotes, as authority for some of his offbeat opinions, papers he had previously written and hand-delivered to the local university library for inclusion into their archives. He watches dreadful tv shows and movies, howling at the screen with a mixture of delight and loathing at the teenybopper drivel, and in the privacy of his room his self-gratification is performed while imagining visions of the old family dog. And wait til you see him out in public, getting a series of odd jobs, including a filing clerk at Levy Pants (with very innovative filing techniques to avoid crowded file space) as well as a costumed hot dog vendor wandering around the French Quarter in a pirate costume. All the while he begins work on his latest opus, The Journal of the Working Boy.

There is a latent sadness to the plot, for while you are laughing out loud at Ignatius, his bowling-addicted mother, and the motley crew of skillfully drawn supporting characters, you sense that he will never really belong anywhere, and that he realizes his outcast status with his innate intelligence. Perhaps the author felt the same way in 1969, leading to his own suicide.

However, at least Toole did leave us A Confederacy of Dunces, a novel which reveals more with each rereading. Keep it on your shelf, and every now and then pick up the book to any page and marvel at the absurdity of Ignatius's grandiose ramblings, read exerpts of his bizarre historical writings, and revisit his comic efforts to organize a worker's revolt at Levy Pants. The list goes on and on. There is no work of litereature like it I know, and my only regret in reading Toole is the sorrow felt in knowing the tremendous body of work that was lost when he ended his life.

  Quixote, Bergerac, Schweik, REILLY...

When I first saw the cover of this paperback in a Georgetown, DC, bookshop a few years ago, I was hesitant to buy it. Simply put, the cover is goofy, and does not do this masterpiece any justice. I am so grateful that I ignored my initial instinct, as I don't remember ever reading a funnier book in the English language than the late John Kennedy Toole's life achievement, nor is there a more memorable character in American literature than I. J. Reilly. The work deserves a 6 star rating! "A Confederacy of Dunces" is more than just incredibly funny, however. It is unusually poignant, gut-wrenchingly sad, and an admirable observation piece on a rather decadent and seemingly lost segment of our society sitting at the mouth of the Mississippi River. I have visited New Orleans three times since 1994 for varied reasons, and the city apparently has not changed in the least since Mr. Toole's late 1960s rendition. His characters continue to stroll and struggle along Bourbon Street and Canal Street, and their troubled spirits infuse every alley and cave of the French Quarter. Just like the district surrounding St. Peter's Square in the city of jazz, Ignatius J. Reilly is out of step with the rest of America. In spite of his repulsive and grossly comical physical presence, he believes in aesthetics and real meaning, in what he perceives to be the truth. For this reason, he is a true literary hero, like Don Quixote, Cyrano de Bergerac and the Good Soldier Schweik before him. One final note: before you buy this book, think about cancelling all your appointments and engagements for the two or three days that follow. They, along with eating and sleeping, undoubtedly will be totally neglected until you finish this 400 page tour de farce.