Monday, September 6, 2010

Confederate States of Insanity

John Kennedy Toole killed himself in 1969. He had written two novels, Confederacy of Dunces and Neon Bible (which he wrote at 16). Neither one had been published. It wasn't until 1976, when his mother, Thelma Toole, brought a copy of Confederacy to novelist Walker Percy, who was a professor at Loyola at the time, that anyone besides Toole and his mother knew the novel existed. Confederacy was published in 1980 by LSU Press, and slowly became a cult favorite. In 1981 it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became a bestseller.

This is quite an accomplishment for a novel that has little, if anything, in the way of a plot, and whose main character and ostensible hero is a morbidly obese, chronically unemployed, spoiled, and pretentious medievalist twit who spends his time (in between eating bakery cakes and slurping down bottles of Dr. Nut soda supplied by his doting mother) writing polemics about how civilization has been on a steady downward slide since the Dark Ages.

But you probably won't care, because Confederacy is a rollicking, hilarious ride, full of characters with such unique voices that I more than once spewed water out of my nose whilst reading. I would advise you to exercise caution when drinking while reading this book.

Confederacy follows the trials of the aforementioned Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives in New Orleans with his mother. Reilly, who speaks in the studiously eloquent vernacular of the overly educated, has never held a job, despite having a master's degree in medieval studies. His passions are bakery cakes, his Big Chief tablets of invective, and writing furious missives to his ex-girlfriend, a Bronx feminist/activist/agitator named Myrna Minkoff.

Ignatius is eventually forced to get a job, first as an office worker in a floundering pants factory, and then as a hot dog vendor. Through a series of coincidences, Ignatius unwittingly becomes tangled up with various Quarter denizens, including the staff of a grubby strip called the Night of Joy, a hapless policeman who desperately tries to find a 'character' to arrest, and his mother's new love interest.

Like I said before, Confederacy doesn't really have a plot, but it doesn't need one. The dialogue is side-splitting and Ignatius is alternately grotesque and spittake-inducingly funny.

Because Louisiana, unlike the rest of the United States, is under the Napoleonic code of law, the rights to the book were jointly owned by Toole's mother and a few other relatives. Because no one ascribed much value to the carbon manuscript that had been lying around Toole's house, his relatives were easily persuaded to give up their rights to Confederacy, but once it became a success, a legal battle over the rights to Neon Bible began, and it was blocked from publication until after Thelma Toole died in 1984. Neon Bible was published five years later.

Interestingly enough, all four actors tapped for various incarnations of a film adaptation of Confederacy died (John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, and Divine). Another stab at a film adaptation, starring Will Farrell as Ignatius, sputtered out as well.

If you go to New Orleans, there is a statue of Ignatius in front of the DH Holmes on the West Bank, where the novel opens.


  1. Ahhhh! I knew I read this book, I'm terrible with names, but once you said Ignatius and like one sentence of plot I remembered it.

  2. Did you like it? I thought it was hilarious, plot-less or not.