A truly unique book in the history of novels. I was given this book as a gift in college many years ago, and I have to say I’ve never read anything like it before or since. The story is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and offers a stunningly original take on the city, the neighborhoods and the people who live along these streets.
The main character of A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly, is unique in the world of novel writing. I think Henry Kisor (reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times years ago) described the protagonist best: “huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter.” He is otherwise indescribable and must be read to be believed.
The title comes from Jonathan Swift’s Thoughts on various subjects, moral and diverting. “When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” That quote opens the book and I was hooked at the moment. This book then is a series of adventures across the city as Ignatius bumbles from one thing to another dealing with family and friends all of whom are by their nature in a confederacy against him. It’s funny without being a comedy, sad without being depressing.
But the real story is outside the covers of this amazing novel. It has a distinction of being one of the only (maybe the only) novel awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. Sadly the book saw life with a publisher after John Kennedy Toole’s mother persisted until she found someone to read and experience her son’s words after he had committed suicide. Walker Percy was hoping to avoid reading it but she persisted. He was hoping it was so bad he could be excused for not reading it-but read on. And he then got it published for her in memory of her late son.
Unfortunately we’ll never know what might have been if John Kennedy Toole hadn’t ended his life. We have this one amazing novel to stand for all time as a testament to his memory. I strongly urge you to get and read this book if you’ve never done so. If you’ve read it-read it again. It’s been many years since my last reading of it, but as I embark on my first novels I’m about to dive back in for some writer spirit inspiration. We can at least keep his memory and work alive for today’s readers and writers.