When John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the wire services carried a photograph of Toole’s mother, Thelma, accepting the prize for her son. The photograph, like the award itself, heightened the sense of irony with which this book has been received. The story of its publication has been widely told; as Walker Percy recounts it in his Foreword, Mrs. Toole brought him her son’s manuscript in 1976, more than a decade after it had been written. Toole had committed suicide, at the age of thirty-two, in 1969. At Percy’s urging, Louisiana State University Press agreed to publish the novel. Although Percy does not say so, one might infer that Toole’s suicide was in part a consequence of indifference to his literary efforts—yet another case of, to use William Wordsworth’s phrase, “mighty poets in their misery dead.” Thus the Pulitzer, along with the novel’s nomination for the PEN-Faulkner Award, seemed not only a commendation but also an expression of public guilt and regret at prior indifference to Toole’s work.
Toole probably would have appreciated the irony of the prize, and of the photograph, as well. His protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is also a writer whose efforts seem doomed to obscurity, although at one point in the novel he worries that his mother, Irene, will discover the Big Chief tablets which contain his sprawling, scathing indictment of the modern world. Ignatius’ fear expresses both the comedy and the tragedy of his conflicts with his mother and reminds the reader that the mother-son relation anchors what is otherwise an improbably plotted, broadly comic commentary on the excesses of contemporary life.
Whether or not Toole’s portrait of Ignatius is autobiographical, the character is unforgettable; he moves through New Orleans leaving confusion in his broad and magnificent wake. Until his mother damages a French Quarter building by running their ancient Plymouth against it, Ignatius has lived the life of a secular monk, withdrawing from society in order to lament its lack of a proper “theology and geometry” and to catalog its “offenses against taste and decency.” Among these offenses are motion pictures, which Ignatius attacks with a gusto rivaled only by his diatribes against television. His taste in reading runs to Boethius, works from the early medieval period, and Batman comic books; Batman is admirable, Ignatius says, because “he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he’s found himself.” Like that of Batman, Ignatius’ morality is rigid and uncompromising. Our hero believes that ordinary work is beneath him and that only a downward turn of the goddess Fortuna’s wheel could impose on him the necessity of finding a job. Partly because of his sedentary life and partly because of his preferences for buttered popcorn, sweet cakes, and Dr. Nut soda, Ignatius suffers not only from obesity but also from gastric distress of every conceivable sort. Even his customary dress (voluminous pleated pants, flannel shirt, and green hunting cap with earflaps) and his speech (he rarely uses contractions) make him an unlikely candidate for commercial success. Nevertheless, because his mother’s ineptitude throws the two of them into debt, Ignatius is forced to seek gainful employment.
His first foray into the working world takes him to the offices of the Levy Pants Company as a file clerk, or, as he styles himself, “Custodian” of the “Department of Research and Reference.” Here, in an effort to compete with his political activist girl friend, Myrna Minkoff, he organizes the “Crusade for Moorish Dignity,” a happening which unfolds as a kind of medieval parody of a civil rights demonstration. Here, too, he begins his “Journal of a Working Boy,” long, numbing entries which are used throughout the novel to give Ignatius’ perspective on the events of the extremely complicated plot. After being fired from Levy Pants, Ignatius becomes a hot-dog vendor in the French Quarter, dressing as a pirate by way of tribute to New Orleans’ colorful past. He also continues to try to “show” Myrna, this time by rallying a group of homosexuals to the cause of world peace. Both crusades come hilariously to grief, but the two episodes suggest a serious theme: that Ignatius’ reactionary efforts to change the world are just as fruitless as Myrna’s indiscriminate revolutionizing. This profoundly pessimistic view that humanity cannot be reformed comes straight from the satirist Jonathan Swift; a line from whose “Thought on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting” gives...
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