John Kennedy Toole Stephen Goodwin - Essay

Stephen Goodwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.