John Kennedy Toole Brad Owens - Essay

Brad Owens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.