Monday, October 10, 2022

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES” by John Kennedy Toole (First published in 1980, but written in the early 1960s) 

            Humour is a very personal thing. What makes one person laugh makes another person sniff with cold disdain. I have a very good friend who once declared that he found nothing funny in The Third Policeman by “Flann O’Brien” (real name Brian O’Nolan.) This is of course blasphemy. The Third Policeman is quite simply a masterpiece of Irish comedy, far funnier than anything Jimmy Joyce ever thought up. Later the same good friend told me that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces wasn’t funny. I wondered if his verdict was the right one, but I’ve only recently read the book to test his judgement. Whatever fun I found in it, however, the book has a tragic, and by now well-known, backstory. 


John Kennedy Toole (1937-69), who at the age of 16 had written an unpublished novel called The Neon Bible, spent much of the early 1960s writing A Confederacy of Dunces. But when he tried to get it published, publishers repeatedly turned it down, even after he sometimes re-wrote parts of it at their request. Toole gradually suffered from severe depression and other psychiatric problems, brought on in part by his sense of rejection. In 1969, a little before his 32nd birthday, he committed suicide. His bereaved mother was sure her son had written a masterpiece and spent years trying to interest publishers in it. Finally she approached Walker Percy, prolific author best known for his first novel  The Moviegoer (published 1961). Like Toole, he was both a New Orleans Southerner and Catholic. Walker Percy was more than impressed. He managed to get A Confederacy of Dunces published, in a modest print-run by a small university press, in 1980, eleven years after the author’s death. It quickly became a “cult” book, won a Pulitzer Prize and was soon a bestseller. It has continued to be a widely-read favourite. In the wake of its popularity, John Kennedy Toole’s teenaged novel The Neon Bible was also published.

So what is it all about? There’s a cliché that says most novels written in the American South are “Southern Gothic” (See on this blog comments on the work of FlanneryO’Connor  – whom Toole admired – and the later Cormac McCarthy [). But of A Confederacy of Dunces I’d say it’s basically “Southern Anarchic”. And as it has “confederacy” in its title some may think that the novel refers to the old South. Not at all. The novel’s epigraph quotes Jonathan Swift’s declaration “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.”

Ignatius Reilly regards himself as a true genius and sees all those who surround him as dunces who need to be taught a lesson. Aged 30, Ignatius Reilly is a fat and unseemly glutton and layabout who farts, belches and (it is discreetly suggested) masturbates frequently and who lives in a slummy quarter of New Orleans. In short, a slob and a sponger. A long-since dropped-out college student, he spends his days, when he can, watching too much television, lying in bed or lolling in the bath, writing grandiose, pompous and unpublishable essays and treatises, and dropping pearls of wisdom such as “Canned food is a perversion…I suspect that it is ultimately damaging to the very soul.” (Book 1). His long-suffering widowed mother Irene is driven to too much drinking by Ignatius’s refusal to find a job and bring some income into her impoverished house. Mechanism of the plot (inasmuch as a somewhat picaresque novel has a plot) is the disaster that follows Ignatius when he does find employment, first in the office of a run-down garment manufactory Levy’s Pants, then pushing a trundler around selling hot-dogs on the street. He gets fired from Levy’s Pants by stirring up a riot with striking factory workers and (later) writing an insulting business letter that puts the company in jeopardy.  As for the hot-dog business, he eats as many as he sells and once again causes riot and confusion. There is much slapstick and knockabout, scrupulously chronicled.

But this is only the skeleton of the tale, for the real attraction of the novel is Ignatius’s dogged war with the twentieth century. As he writes in one of his diaries “Employers sense in me a denial of their values… They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.”(Book 2) Refuting Communism in an argument with his mother, he gives his political creed thus: “Do you think I want to live in a communal society with people like [a friend of his mother’s], sweeping streets and breaking up rocks of whatever it is people are always doing in those blighted countries? What I want is a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry and to cultivate a Rich Inner Life.  (Book 9) He repeatedly advises people to read Boethius’s 6th century treatise The Consolations of Philosophy, which encourages us to expect Fortune to be a fickle thing. He is enamoured of the Middle Ages. Giving advice on reading to a character who calls himself “Dorian Greene”, a gay guy whom he mistakes for a fellow connoisseur, Ignatius says  Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books.” (Book 10) And of course in his slobbish, gluttonous, layabout, work-shy, Rabelaisian, Falstaffian existence, he regards himself as intellectually superior to all whom he meets. In his confessional diary he writes “speaking of his fellow workers, “I really have little to do with them, for I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.”(Book 5 )


Much of our laughter comes from the delusions he has about himself ; but much also comes from the fact that many things he says do make a crazy sort of sense. After all, who would not be challenged by, or repelled by, the sordid New Orleans that surrounds him - a city of pimps, bums, con-men, strip-clubs, grifters, pedlars of pornography, run-down houses and poverty, with the French Quarter haunted by tourists looking for prostitutes? All of these things feature in A Confederacy of Dunces. Later commentators have noted that John Kennedy Toole has depicted accurately the New Orleans of the early 1960s. But there are many kinds of comedy here. There are Ignatius’s self-contradictions. He denounces movies as blasphemous or pornographic but obsessively watches them anyway.  He is inept in reading character, assuming that “Dorian Greene” is a fellow seeker of a new political party, preparing a speech to make at a political rally, and instead finding himself facing a gay audience in a gay club where he gets beaten up by three brawny lesbians. And more than any other sort of comedy, there is the incongruity of his spoken and written language. While others speak colloquially, his language is always formal, pedantic and self-righteous, as if his every utterance is an academic thesis. This voice alone sabotages many of his pretentions.

Like Dickens at his most comical, John Kennedy Toole creates memorable characters, caricatured or grotesque as they may be. Apart from Ignatius, the most important is Mryna Minkoff from the Bronx. Ignatius converses with her in long letters usually in response to her long letters. Toole has clearly set her up as Ignatius’s antithesis. He’s Southern, she’s Northern. He’s Catholic (sort of); she’s Jewish. He’s (more or less) conservative. She’s (more or less) liberal. He looks to the past. She thinks she’s a revolutionary. She’s a guitar-strumming beatnik (the term “hippie” hadn’t become common currency when Toole was writing) who likes to hang around in coffee bars in Manhattan having earnest discussions with people she thinks are intellectuals. He prefers to be on his own writing long narratives to himself or going to the movies. Oddly though, they are both proselytisers, each trying to convert the other to a different way of thinking. Or so they think. But it is soon clear to the reader that both are really lost souls, living in worlds of their own.

The cast of characters is too rich to describe in detail. Lana Lee, who runs a sleazy and dirty strip club called Night of Joy which may also be a brothel (at least one character habitually calls it a “cathouse”). Darlene, her chief stripper who, in her naivete, is one of the novel’s more sympathetic characters, especially when she is forced to do an “exotic” act with a bird on her shoulder (the act gets chaotically sabotaged). The sad policeman Officer Mancuso, who is always given demeaning assignments by his boss, such as walking around the mean streets in drag in the hope that he will be able to arrest anyone who propositions him; or having to spend all day in a public men’s lavatory in the hope that he can arrest homosexuals. The semi-senile Trixie who works in the office of Levy’s Pants and wishes she could just retire. The proprietor Gus Levy himself, only half-heartedly running the place and with a wife who keep throwing inane dollar-book Freud concepts at him. As for Clyde, the blunt and proud proletarian who hires Ignatius to peddle hot-dogs, his no-nonsense ripostes usually deflate Ignatius’s pompous formality.

One character deserves special mention because, with less discerning readers, he might be seen as a caricature of a black man (at the time the novel was written, blacks were still called Negroes and the term “African American” was rarely heard). Indeed, if the novel were written now there would probably be some to tell us that it was racist. This is Burma Jones, usually just called Jones, who is the janitor and floor-sweeper at the Night of Joy. He speaks colloquially in a dialect that could be mistaken for the type of utterances once made by Stepin Fetchit; but usually Jones is the voice of sanity and emerges as a comic hero in the novel. Jones is never subservient and protests at the less-then-minimum wage he’s getting by offering a threat. “Times changing… You cain scare color peoples no more. I got me some peoples form a human chain in front your door, drive away your business, get you on the TV news. Color peoples take enough horse shit already, an for twenty dollar a week you ain pilin on no more.”(Book 3) He is insistent on his rights: “Listen, you ever try livin on my kinda wage? You think color people get grossries and clothin at a specia price? What you thinkin about half the time you sitting up here playin with your penny? Whoa! Where I live, you know how peoples buy cigarette? Them peoples cain affor a whole pack, they buy them cigarette separate two cent apiece. You thinks a color mother got it easy? Shit. I ain’t foolin. I getting pretty tire of bein vagran or tryina keep my ass alive on this kinda wage.” (Book 7) Perhaps most significantly, Burma Jones sees though Ignatius’s pretentions when he declares, as Ignatius trundles around selling (and eating) hot-dogs: “If I go to college I wouldn be draggin no meat wagon around sellin people a lotta garbage and shit.”  (Book 11) Jones, subversive and very active, is the antidote to Ignatius’s sloth and irresponsibility.

If I were to criticise any aspect of A Confederacy of Dunces it would be the somewhat contrived “happy ending” (I won’t go into the details), but at least it keeps Ignatius in character. And it is notoriously difficult to wrap up a picaresque comic novel, so this is a very small fault. To my (still) very good friend who did not find this novel funny, I say sorry, but I really did enjoy it and laugh along with it. All good comedy has an element of pathos, and it is here in the desperation of Ignatius Reilly and Mryna Minkoff to see themselves as intellectuals. There are such people, you know. In A Confederacy of Dunces there’s also a strong whiff of the type comedy that W.C.Fields and Falstaff embody. Fields was funny because his character was consistently a cheat, mean, drunken, misanthropic, self-centred and a hater of children. Falstaff was funny because he was a liar, a coward, a drunkard and monstrously fat. To be a bit recherche,  I could also note the hilarious sloth of the title character in Goncharov's Oblomov and the equally hilarious sloth of the student anti-hero in Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds. I’m not endorsing sponging lazy slobs like Ignatius Reilly, who in real life would disgust us. But these sorts of characters, with their riotous irresponsibility, appeal to that part of us where we wish we could be totally irresponsible too, and break all the rules of civility.  We are allowed to enter an anarchic cloud-cuckoo land where the rules are violated but in the end nobody gets hurt. It’s not real life, but it’s very funny.

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