May 20, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces

I read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole on the recommendation of Russell Moore, and must say that I've never met a more despicable protagonist. You would never want to cross paths with Ignatius J. Reilly. He's an over-educated, underachieving, extremely judgmental, scheming, neurotic, physically disgusting, ungrateful mama's boy who billows through life leaving chaos in his wake. The book is funny, laugh-out-loud funny in many parts, and the disparate threads of the zany plot all wind together in a surprising yet oddly fitting way at the end.

Statue of Ignatius J. Reilly in New Orleans

A Confederacy of Dunces has been reviewed all over the place, so I won't spend much time on the story here. I'll just touch on one recurring motiff that made me think--the well-meaning, yet out-of-touch helper who only makes things worse. Myrna Minkoff, Reilly's girlfriend/nemesis is a socially conscious New Yorker who
had stopped throughout the rural South to teach Negroes folk songs she had learned at the Library of Congress. The Negroes, it seems, preferred more contemporary music and turned up their transistor radios loudly and defiantly whenever Myrna began one of her lugubrious dirges.
Mrs. Levy, wife of the owner of Levy Pants, refuses to allow Miss Trixie, an aged senile employee, to retire because she worries that Miss Trixie will fall into despair if she is not contributing to society. Really though, Miss Trixie wants nothing more than to retire, and spends her days at work napping, making bitter remarks, and hoarding bits of paper and foil.

Ignatius engages in this kind of activity more than once. He stages a "Crusade for Moorish Dignity" at the pants factory where he works, and he tries to organize New Orleans's gay community to infiltrate global government and military power structures in movement to "Save the World through Degeneracy."

Potential readers, be warned. A Confederacy of Dunces contains foul language including multiple f-bombs, and treats various sexual topics, though not lasciviously. In my opinion Toole, describes immorality without reveling in it, and the good in the book outweighs the bad. Christians sometimes jump in to "help" too quickly, and this book demonstrates the danger of that behavior with humor and compassion.

You can find A Confederacy of Fools on Amazon. As of this writing, the kindle edition is $3.99, the new paperback edition is $10.20 and you can buy it used for as little as a penny plus shipping. If you've read it, let me know what you think in the comments.


  1. Jeremy, Thanks for the article. Enjoyed seeing the book through your eyes. For sure my favorite part of the book was how "the disparate threads of the zany plot all wind together in a surprising yet oddly fitting way at the end." Though I agree the author did not "revel" in immorality and definitely did not include such descriptions of sexuality as to titillate - Yet I do wish the same book could have been written without any of that. Reading "Confederacy" upon Moore's recommendation has made me stop and examine my own motivations for reading fiction, and my ability to enjoy a work like "Confederacy." I actually read the whole book through and failed to laugh out loud even one time. There were a couple of sections I read to my family and they laughed. I can enjoy an uproarious book, for example those by Patrick McManus, in which he describes his own childhood and crazy characters like "Retch Sweeney." So, I'm not sorry for reading the book, but on the other hand wouldn't recommend it and maybe even I would recommend against reading it. Perhaps my problem is I don't have the depth to "get it" and understand why it is a great work. Perhaps in the midst of all the crazy humor there was a darkness hanging over it all. Though also, and I don't consider myseful a prude, definitely I did not care for the treatment of the sexual topics.

    I did like the way the author exposed the harm of a Mrs. Levy type applying her pscyoanalysis to Trixie. Or also the tracing of effect of the railway workers carelessly handling the baseball game during shipping, which characteristic carelessness diminishes the business of railway shipping, which cuts the profits, which hurts the railway workers who then go on strike, which finally destroys the railway and they all end up unemployed. Perhaps the "unintended effect" described in that scenario is in a nutshell what happened as all of Ingatius' unintended effects were wrapped up to the profit of the good and the destruction of the bad.

  2. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Scott. Patrick McManus is an author I haven't read in a long time. I used to love his books. Gonna have to find one somewhere for a reread!

  3. Regarding Patrick McManus, same here long time since ought to find a copy and reread. Been many years but I was reminded of him last week as my son has appropriated the books we had written by McManus and occasionally entertains his wife reading from them out loud as we did many years ago when he was young.

    Jeremy, I have you now in my google reader and look forward to your continued reviews of good books read well.

  4. My son is old enough now for us to enjoy many of the same books. That's one of the great joys of fatherhood.

    I appreciate you following along via RSS, Scott. I write this blog mainly to keep myself accountable, but it's great to have good company on the journey!

  5. For what it's worth, I've offered some comments a couple weeks ago re A Confederacy on my blog:

    I gave it the title "Worth Reading Again." Only now have discovered your blog.

    Brent N.

    1. Hi Brent. Thanks for the comment. It's Interesting that Myrna Minkoff's folk-music campaign caught your attention as well. You have had a busy month with that blog! Keep up the great work.


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