There are some books you should always buy for a quarter, even if you already have them, so you can give them to friends. One of them is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It was a pretty popular book, so I find it quite often, and many friends have enjoyed it as much as I did.
I’m rerereading it right now to find out what makes it so enjoyable, and I find it is a study in self indulgence.
The main character, Ignatius Reilly, has a master’s degree in Medieval Studies and he’s 30 years old, but he lives with his mother and seldom leaves his room except to go to the movies. And he’s overweight and becomes more and more so throughout the novel.
He likes to watch Yogi Bear and soak in the tub and scribble profound thoughts about the crisis of our age on sheets of Big Chief notepaper that lie scattered around the room. He can also put away two dozen jelly doughnuts at a go.
He and his mother have a comedic automobile accident and damage a building and they have to pay, so Ignatius is forced out into the working world as a file clerk and then as a hotdog vendor, and we hear these incessant self-indulgent laments and invocations of obscure saints laced with vitriolic attacks on his sort-of girlfriend Myra Minkoff and complaints about his pyloric valve which is always closing up on him and causing a buildup of gas in his stomach.
It’s set in New Orleans, so he meets all kinds of characters pushing his hot dog cart around, and of course he eats all the hot dogs himself and grows fatter still.
I can’t tell you why it’s funny. But it is. We all know someone like him. And it tests our own beliefs about self indulgence. It’s good to give yourself a break once in a while; but at the same time it’s easy to give yourself so many breaks that you wind up like Ignatius Reilly.
The greatest strength of the book is the author’s ear for dialogue and his sense of character. Too bad he killed himself before the novel ever got published. He could have written many more enjoyable books.
His mother shopped it around from publisher to publisher until finally Walker Percy read it and it got published and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Ignatius Reilly is so pathetic that he makes the perfect protagonist for the modern age where everyone’s goal is to go on a talk show and talk about what a feeb they are and blame all their problems on someone else. Too bad the brilliant novelist who created him (possibly in his own image) chose to end his life in despair.
“To despair is to turn your back on God.” So says Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables, and I believe it to be a great truth. I believe that all who have despaired have turned their backs on God, that is to say, on eternal joy.
If only John Kennedy Toole had chosen to live on and give us more hilarious masterpieces.