Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Booklog, A Condederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press Trade Paperback, 394 pages

Stick the landing.

That's the advice that I got from this novel: stick the landing. I was reading through it, fully prepared to give it a merely so-so review, categorizing it in my mind as "one damn thing after another," when suddenly I realized while reading the last forty pages or so just how perfect the ending was shaping up to be, and how well it tied the entire rest of this messy, disorganized novel into a neat little bow. It made me understand that the book was written exactly as it needed to be -- there's little or no wasted verbiage here, despite appearances -- and that the book deserves its accolades.

For those unfamiliar with the context of the book, John Kennedy Toole wrote this novel in the early sixties and later killed himself. His mother discovered the manuscript in her son's personal items after he died, read it, and recognized it as a great book. She spent years pestering people in positions to publish the book to give it a read-through, and when the book was finally published, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

The book's protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly (although the myriad characters surrounding him are given about as many pages as he is), a fat, oblivious thirtysomething who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He has a master's degree in some unstated subject (probably classical studies, given his appreciation for Boethus), and spends all of his time camped out in his room, writing pages upon pages of purple prose into notebooks, the earliest of which he can scarcely even remember the contents of. He also plays at the local arcade, and goes to the movies almost daily -- not because he likes the films, but to expose himself to the further depradations of modern society. See, Ignatius detests modernism, feeling that society reached its peak sometime during the Middle Ages, although he does seem to appreciate the conveniences of modern society a great deal.

Many have described Ignatius as depressed, and I'm not entirely sure I disagree, but to me his behavior seems more closely connected with some form of high-functioning austism. He is enormously intelligent, but completely and utterly self-centered, berating all of those in his life for slights real and imagined, and basically being a giant boor. He refuses to even go get a job until his mother, needing a thousand and fifty dollars to pay damages she owes after getting in a car accident, forces him to go pound the pavement. The majority of the novel details Ignatius's work habits as a filing clerk at a clothing factory and, later, a hot dog vendor.

As mentioned above, there is also a large supporting cast of various characters, all of them deftly drawn "colorful characters," but rarely dipping into caricature. Most affecting (and most central to the plot, as it turns out towards the end) is a formerly-vagrant black man who takes a sub-minimum-wage job sweeping floors at the local strip club -- he is often the voice of reason and wisdom in the book, but never steps near stereotype; he too has a wit and flash all his own, and his scenes are among the most engaging.

This book is described as a comedy, and perhaps the biggest flaw I found with the book is that I did not find it particularly funny. I am clearly in the minority here, but I found the overall sadness of the Ignatius character to be more prominent in his interactions, and while some of the situations he gets into are absurd or surreal, his actions are so grounded in his particular psychology that I couldn't find it in my heart to laugh at the poor guy.

Overall this turned out to be a very good book. I wish I could have enjoyed the humor a bit more, but that's probably a failing of mine, not the book. There's a lot here that I haven't even touched on -- this book is enormously rich in terms of local character and flavor, and most scenes are short, leading to a more engaging moment if you get tired of the one you're on. Keep in mind that there is a meaning to all this, and that there is a subtly-buried plot, and you'll do fine with the book.

It's a shame Toole killed himself. This book is so good that he could have had a long life of writing strangely tragicomic novels; he could have been a common man's Thomas Pynchon, or Phillip Roth with a Cajun twist. As the introduction notes, one of the real tragedies of the book is all the other books we were denied by the suicide of the author.

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