Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

The story behind this fascinating first book is as tragic as the book is comical and entertaining. John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969) wrote 'A Confederacy of Dunces' in the early sixties, in his twenties, tried to get it published, could not handle the depression of rejection and killed himself at the age of 32. His mother who believed in the manuscript pursued it and eventually got it published in 1980, 11 years after Toole's death. Ironically, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. 'A Confederacy of Dunces' is a racy, fun book full of exotic characters from New Orleans.

Meet Ignatius J. Reilly, college educated, homebody who has his own ideas about changing the world through demonstrations and political protests. He has a supercilious attitude to life, thinks he is above everything and everyone, does not work and lives off his alcoholic, arthritic and indulgent mother. Ignatius is a hypochondriac, and constantly complains of his ill health, chiefly, of his pyloric valve which he fears immensely and uses as an excuse not to work. Ignatius is overweight, flatulent, unhygienic, loud mouthed (though extremely articulate and eloquent), arrogant and an inveterate liar with no qualms about sacrificing anyone for his needs. Ignatius's passions get activated when he is trying to outdo his lady love from college, the rebellious Myrna Minkoff, a political activist.

The book takes off on a small scene at a railway station where the oddly dressed Ignatius attracts the attention of a new patrolman to the beat, the thin, easily-intimidated Mancuso. Ignatius and his mother are rescued from being arrested by an old man who interferes and gets himself arrested. On the way home the mother and son duo stops by a seedy bar run by the infamous Lana Lee, ably assisted by Darlene and Burma Jones. The cast consists of an amazing bunch of characters including - Santa Battaglia, Claude. Mr. Levy, Mrs. Levy, Gonsalves, Miss Trixie, Prof Talc, George, Claude, Clyde - and the story unfolds deliciously and leads one through the streets of New Orleans through demonstrations, clothes factories, hot dog carts, movies, porn magazines, live shows and what not.

The beauty of the work hits you when you hit the last 100 pages. It all settles in seamlessly, every motive is clear and resolved, all justice done. Best of all, the last scene when Myrna comes to rescue the seemingly repulsive Ignatius, it lifts itself in just a couple of scenes to a great love story. What brilliant writing and what a waste of such prodigious talent. To write such an accomplished novel in his twenties is really astounding and I am so glad I read it. In many ways it reminded me of Adrian Mole's tragi-comic existence and his lady love Pandora, who is also a politician. Thanks Sanjay Reddy for recommending the book and my good friend and owner of all the good books in the world, Vinod Ekbote, for lending it to me.  

1 comment:

Rajendra said...

sounds too good to pass up. Will read, one day..thanks to Vinod and you for the good deeds.