John Kennedy Toole Essay - Critical Essays

Toole, John Kennedy


Toole, John Kennedy 1937–1969

An American, Toole wrote one novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, published fifteen years after his suicide. The novel, which Walker Percy termed "a great rumbling farce," won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

Walker Percy

[Persuaded by John Kennedy Toole's mother to read the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, Walker Percy comments in his foreword to the novel:] I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.

Here at any rate is Ignatius Reilly, without progenitor in any literature I know of—slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one—who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age, lying in his flannel nightshirt, in a back bedroom on Constantinople Street in New Orleans, who between gigantic seizures of flatulence and eructations is filling dozens of Big Chief tablets with invective.

His mother thinks he needs to go to work. He does, in a succession of jobs. Each job rapidly escalates into a lunatic adventure, a full-blown disaster; yet each has, like Don Quixote's, its own eerie logic.

His girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff of the Bronx, thinks he needs sex. What happens between Myrna and Ignatius is like no other boy-meets-girl story in my experience.

By no means a lesser virtue of Toole's novel...

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Brad Owens

[The protagonist of "A Confederacy of Dunces"] is the quin-tessential pessimist who is continually offended by a world ill-equipped to recognize his genius…. [Ignatius Reilly] is one of the most repelling, entertaining, and, in some strange way, sympathetic characters I have ever encountered….

The setting in New Orleans, where Toole renders as surrealistic a social landscape as one would ever hope to find, peopled by characters whose dialects only gain in comic effect by clashing with Ignatius' educated and bombastic diction….

Toole doesn't use his characters as convenient targets for falling objects of one sort or another. Blacks, WASPS, homosexuals, policemen, conservatives, radicals, and more are laughable here, but they are more than caricatures or stereotypes. Toole has succeeded in creating characters with comic essences, whose laughability is somehow a predetermined feature, like an unusually large nose, so that while they proceed through life with something close to the same proportion of problems, successes, logic and absurdity as the rest of us, we can't help laugh at what makes them incongruous, or feel sympathetic toward what makes them human….

The title is from Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." There is a sort of genius in Ignatius' ability to survive and, in fact, to better his antagonists, and there was an unmistakable comic genius in the creator of this book.

Brad Owens, "Farce in a Southern Drawl," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), June 4, 1980, p. 17.

Stephen Goodwin

[A Confederacy of Dunces] is a corker. It is a gross farce, a blustering satire, an epic comedy, a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book that begins with a solitary fat man but quickly picks up cops and B-girls, clerks and capitalists, most of the "deviates" and "degenerates" of the French Quarter of New Orleans, and keeps right on gathering momentum until it sweeps away everything, including that most innocent of bystanders, the reader, in its path….

[Ignatius] is writing a history of western civilization: "With the breakdown of the medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy." This mighty work is a repudiation of the modern age, which has treated Ignatius so badly that his pyloric valve regularly snaps shut and fills his stomach with trapped gas. (p. 1)

[The plot] is absurd, perfectly absurd, but it is also perfectly inevitable.

One of the pleasures of reading this novel is to discover that inevitability. A related, higher pleasure is to meet with benign absurdity A Confederacy of Dunces has very little in common with black humor, where cruelty so often prevails. In Toole's novel, an emotion like sadness makes itself felt; these characters meet only at the absurd level of plot. The sadness arises from the sense of all the connections missed, of possibilities closed, of lives gone wrong, of immense human resources being wasted.

This, then, is more than just a funny book. Toole's world is, after all, the sad old world, and it reduces Ignatius' philosophy to the level of the bumper sticker: Love It or Leave It. Ignatius loves it. When Ignatius leaves his fetid room, he is choosing the modern age over the Middle Ages, the actual over the ideal, the thing itself over the concept. Out on the streets, out there where Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste really are running amuck, Ignatius is right at home….

This is a first novel that will have no successors, but it doesn't need them. It stands on its own. (p. 7)

Stephen Goodwin, "Of the French Quarter," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), June 22, 1980, pp. 1, 7.

Alan Friedman

There are readers—and I am one—who keep calm in the face of the stormiest comic novels. Wit, farce, satire, nonsense: I may be vastly tickled, but I do not laugh out loud. Till now. To the charms of … "A Confederacy of Dunces" I succumbed, stunned and seduced, page after page, vocal with delight. It gave me such pleasure that I would be ungrateful not to report here at the outset that, for all its flaws, it is a masterwork of comedy. (p. 7)

A dozen characters bounce off each other, physically and verbally, through a plot of such disarming inventiveness that it seems to generate itself effortlessly. It generates at least two other great comic figures: Burma Jones, meditating sabotage in a thundercloud of smoke, and the superannuated Miss Trixie, dying to retire. The plot, as it spins, also generates the city of New Orleans in hot, sharp, solid, ethnic detail.

A pungent work of slapstick, satire and intellectual incongruities—yet flawed in places by its very virtues. Characters are overdone; caricatures are done to death; there are swatches of repetition. The relentless concentration on hilarious dialogue results frequently in pages that read like a TV script for a situation comedy. Now and then Ignatius's marvelously bombastic voice spills over into the narrative voice proper, resulting at these moments in a prose whose intent may be humorous, but whose effect is ponderous. Whenever the author goes out of his...

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Monroe K. Spears

Noting that [A Confederacy of Dunces] was resurrected long after the author's death and published by a university press, the reader may well approach it with a certain wariness. It does not look promising…. Fortunately, this is not the case; the book needs no concessions. It is consistently entertaining and irresistibly funny, a comic epic in the great tradition of Cervantes and Fielding with a suspenseful and elaborate plot skillfully managed and the little world of New Orleans encompassing the whole modern world. (p. 7)

One of the finest things about the book is the vividness with which the speech of each character is rendered so as to be at once individual and exactly representative of his class, race, and locality—and, most important of all, both expressive of his nature and funny….

Why this book should have been rejected by publishers fifteen years ago is a mystery. Perhaps they were offended by its lack of any positive satiric norm, by its impartial ridicule of both sides of most political, social, and religious issues. But its mode is quite different from the stark irony of Swift or Flannery O'Connor, the grim satire of Nathanael West, the existentialist quest of Walker Percy. It is less subtle and profound, often closer to farce than to their kind of religiously based comedy. Naturally, it is uneven; some jokes are repeated too often and some misfire…. But [A Confederacy of Dunces] is fully mature, individual, and completely finished, and it embodies a unique and powerful comic vision. (p. 30)

Monroe K. Spears, "A New Orleans Comic Epic," in The Lone Star Book Review (copyright © 1980 Lone Star Media Corp.), Vol. II, No. 1, June-July, 1980, pp. 7, 30.

Richard Brown

All but the most dedicated admirers of comic fantasy will be made wary by their first impressions of A Confederacy of Dunces. Its paranoid title, adapted from Swift, promises the kind of literary self-consciousness that can so often become tedious. It carries an off-putting foreword explaining the author's suicide and the discovery of the manuscript by an American college tutor. The central character is a grotesque version of the unemployable, self-indulgent, middle-aged adolescent with a master's degree and a sordid bedroom scattered with the notebook jottings that are one day to become his major indictment of the modern world. We might be excused for thinking that this has been done before….


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