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Going Medieval: A Confederacy of Dunces, Reviewed

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A Confederacy of Dunces cover 

Ignatius J. Reilly
and his pyloric valve
suffer constant trauma
at the hands of
modern society
in John Kennedy Toole’s
A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
1980
Grove Press

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. Jonathan Swift

Such is the dilemma for Ignatius J. Reilly. Set in post McCarthy era New Orleans, A Confederacy of Dunces follows the overeducated underachiever’s exploits as an unappreciated Medieval scholar, doomed political revolutionary, and condescending hot dog vendor.

Ignatius, thirty years old, oversized and under-bathed, is content to look down upon society while living off of his perpetually buzzed, arthritic mother. When a financial disaster forces him to gain employment, he finds himself the leader of a befuddled workers’ revolt, physically threatened by lesbians, and an unwitting player in a local scandal; all the while bellowing and belching through fits of hypochondria.

The wonderfully repugnant Reilly is surrounded by equally enjoyable characters: His wine guzzling, intermittently passive and aggressive mother; Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius’ “lost love” and rival; the long-suffering Patrolman Mancuso and his abrasive aunt, Santa Battaglia; paranoid Claude Robichaux (ever fearful of “the communiss”); an exhausted Miss Dixie, often lost in the throes of senile dementia; malicious Mrs. Levy and her exercising board; and the street smart Burma Jones, the one truly likable character in the mix.


A Confederacy of Dunces is a book that almost wasn’t. John Kennedy Toole wrote the story in the 1960’s, but disagreements with publishers left the work unpublished in his lifetime (sadly, Toole committed suicide in 1969). Seven years after his death the author’s mother presented the text to Walker Percy, who was then teaching at Loyola. Through their efforts, Toole’s manuscript was published in 1980 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

 

Since then A Confederacy of Dunces has become a cult classic. It’s surprising that this original and esteemed work hasn’t gone mainstream. Toole’s tragicomedy is well worth discovering: the setting is rich, the characters are vibrant, and the dialogue is priceless. All of the elements shine through an inventive and engaging story line.

So grab a bottle of muscatel from the oven and kick back with A Confederacy of Dunces and a box of wine cakes. Just keep your eye on the cockatoo (you’ll have to read the book).

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