John Kennedy Toole wrote two novels before he tragically passed away in 1969 at the age of 31. His first novel, The Neon Bible, was written in 1954 when Toole was just 16. It was published posthumously in 1989. The Confederacy of Dunces was written in 1963 but as in the case of Toole’s first novel, he was unable to find a publisher. After he passed away, his mother, Thelma Toole, took possession of his manuscripts and doggedly pursued publishers. The Confederacy of Dunces was finally published in 1980 and it earned Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
I finally got around to reading The Confederacy of Dunces and it is a unique piece of literature. I would put it up there with To Kill a Mockingbird, as important works of fiction depicting life in the Southern United States. In this case, it takes place in New Orleans and I understand Toole captures the city’s unique dialects to perfection. The genre is humour and on a number of occasions I found myself laughing out loud. But it is also a tragicomedy.
The story centers around Ignatius Reilly, an overweight and unkempt man in his 30s still living with his mother. Although, well educated, he is virtually unemployable because of his perverse personality and the fact that he is an absolute fat slob. He is eccentric, quite opinionated and, at times, delusional. The only time he ever left New Orleans was to travel to Baton Rouge on a Greyhound Scenicruiser bus. The trip was so traumatic, he never made it all the way. There has been considerable conjecture regarding Ignatius Reilly and who is the inspiration for the character. From what I understand, he is a combination of Toole himself and his eccentric friend Bob Byrne.
The other main characters are his tormented mother, Irene Reilly and Myrna Minkoff, a Jewish beatnik (the book was written in the early 60s) from New York City, whom Ignatius met in college. She and Ignatius are complete opposites, yet they have this perverse attraction to each other. They regularly correspond to rip each other apart over their political views and attitudes toward sex (he is an abstainer and she is sexually liberated).
I have to admit I couldn’t put this book down. The characters were so delightful and outrageous, although as the book comes to a conclusion, you actually begin to feel bad for Ignatius. This is an outstanding example of American humour. I wonder had he lived, if Toole might have one day earned comparisons to Mark Twain.