John Kennedy Toole Richard Brown - Essay

Richard Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….

Nevertheless, A Confederacy of Dunces manages to gather a considerable momentum, has its own distinctive voice and is imaginative enough to escape the cliché….

[The] strengths of this novel do not really reside in [its] wild narrative and the countless absurd situations it generates. It succeeds, where it does succeed, through the clarity of its episodic architecture, its ability to rely effectively on dialogue for the evocation of scene and character, and through some splendid close observation which arises mainly from a determination to work with the peculiarities of a New Orleans setting and language.

Richard Brown, "Tacky Vocations," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4034, July 18, 1980, p. 821.