A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
John Kennedy Toole (1937–1969) messed me up some. I didn’t know him, even if I’m slowly trying to retrace all the pieces and writers who have won the Pulitzer Prize. It is a hard job, I have to say, because my approval threshold is high and several novels are only slightly above the pass level – and I really don’t understand why they won the most prestigious prize in the US.
Anyway, my friend Tim gently gave me A Confederacy of Dunces (or maybe he lent me it, I have to ask) and I was immediately caught by its astonishing and numerous reviews on the back cover. I quote Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times: ‘The hero of John Kennedy Toole’s incomparable comic classic is one Ignatius J. Reilly, huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans’ lower depths, incredible true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures.’
The string of positive and delighted reviews is extraordinarily long, and ends with the Rolling Stone’s, which summarises it in this way: ‘A Confederacy of Dunces has been reviewed almost everywhere, and every reviewer has loved it. For once, everyone is right.’
Now, follow me. Maybe you don’t know that John Kennedy Toole, poor man, committed suicide because he was dramatically depressed, especially because neither agents nor publishers accepted his novel. And please note that we are talking of the best cream of the American editorial world, starting from the publisher Simon & Schuster, the editor Robert Gottlieb (who had mentored Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22), Hodding Carter Jr, Candida Donadio and again Robert Gottlieb who, after several reworks made by John Kennedy Toole, wrote to him: ‘But that, all this aside, there is another problem: that with all this wonderfulness, the book – even better plotted (and still better plotable) – does not have a reason; it is a brilliant exercise in invention, but unlike Catch 22 and Mother’s Kisses and V. and the others, it isn’t really about anything. And that’s something no one can do anything about.’ That was the inscription on Dunces’ tombstone and John Kennedy Toole’s too.
After his death, other agents and publishers refused Dunces, like for example Nevils and Hardy, Fletcher etc.
Let’s go ahead: this is very interesting. The quote that John Kennedy Toole put at the beginning of the book is by Jonathan Swift and says: ‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.’ Now it is easy to think that the dunces are the agents and publishers who refused his book, so the best of the literary world back then. By the way, anyone who has had bad experiences with agents and publishers won’t have a hard time agreeing with him.
On the other side, there is the world that, eventually, recognised John Kennedy Toole’s talent, which is his mother and then the writer Walker Percy, who loved the book and took care of it, pushing the manuscript to other publishers. In vain.
Only after three years of new frustrating attempts, in 1980, eleven years after Toole’s suicide, did Louisiana State University Press timidly publish 2,500 copies of the book.
In 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Immediately, another group of people appeared in confederacy: the fans. Thus, the book is now ‘a canonical work of modern literature’, ‘a masterwork of comedy’, ‘a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book’, ‘an astonishing good novel, radiant with intelligence’, etcetera. I don’t want to either bother you or make any comment about the equation success + visibility = fans.
That was the background before my reading.
At the end of my reading, after more than 400 intense pages, I have to say that Robert Gottlieb was right. Thus, I, too, belong to the confederacy of dunces. I admit that. But also for me the novel is humoristic, full of invention and, sometimes, of fireworks, with incredible dialogues (almost too many, too long, merciless); also for me John Kennedy Toole is talented and nice, okay, but, at the same time, the novel isn’t really about anything. I agree. I didn’t find a reason for it but John Kennedy Toole’s need to write, maybe to describe himself and forgive himself. Nothing else. And eventually my feeling is of disappointment, since it leaves me with no thoughts, no inspiration.
So, don’t confuse this book with Don Quixote, please, and don’t make a comparison with Catch 22, which is not only funny but also extremely deep and meaningful. Catch 22 is for me a masterpiece, in terms of its structure, for being very innovative, for the variety and depth of its characters, for its messages and in terms of ideology. No else has described the craziness and irrationality of war with Heller’s perspective and effectiveness, even in his light and comic way. ‘People who were crazy were not obliged to fly missions; but anyone who applied to stop flying was showing a rational concern for their safety, and was sane.’ Behind and beyond war there is the profit, the money. Thus, the island of Pianosa is a metaphysical place, where men are condemned to play a meaningless tragedy. The main character, Yossarian, is a normal man, we can say, in a world gone mad, and so he looks like he is crazy. The events, which are out of sequence, are ironically described and transfigured. Eventually, the novel leads us to reflect.
On the contrary, A Confederacy of Dunces is basically a monologue, an affabulazione without a clear goal other than, as I said, the desperate need to write, to express himself. Which could be a necessary and good spring too, but not a sufficient reason to create a masterpiece (or, at least, a novel that deserves a Pulitzer Prize).
Especially when talking about the concept of literature, just so we don’t use this term in an easy and trivial way (‘a canonical work of modern literature’), we should be aware that the definition of ‘literature’ goes back to four components at least (in my opinion): the assiduous, repeated and in-depth reflection and meditation on the text, when writing and reading it in silence and quiet; the linking of the literary account with the irreducible diversity of the social and collective dimension of others (art is communication, too); the tireless experiencing of an hypothesis of reality, of possible worlds that reach our intelligence and our emotions; and the ‘ecology of mind’ (Gregory Bateson), which literature allows, permitting us to stay away from the noise around us without isolating ourselves in a splendid solitude, but, on the contrary, leading us to the concreteness of the surrounding reality.
Maybe other features are essential, but at the end of the intense process of reading, if we don’t dive into a possible world that communicates with us and inspires our intelligence and our deep emotions, maybe it is better not to categorise the book as ‘literature’ but as ‘entertainment’ or ‘intellectual pleasure’, etc.
In conclusion, going back to Dunces, here is an example from the book, which is actually catching and brilliant (the depiction of the New Orleans’ dialects too is a tasty part of the account):
Pushing through the people, Mrs. Reilly said, “Ignatius! What’s going on here? What you done now? Hey, take your hands off my boy.”
“I’m not touching him, lady,” the policemen said. “Is this here your son?”
Mrs. Reilly snatched the whizzing lute string from Ignatius.
“Of course I’m her child,” Ignatius said. “Can’t you see her affection for me?”
“What you trying to do my poor child?” Mrs. Reilly asked the policemen. Ignatius patted his mother’s hennaed hair with one of his huge paws. “You got plenty business picking on poor chirren with all the kind of people they got running in this town. Waiting for his momma and they try to arrest him.”
“This is clearly a case for the Civil Liberties Union,” Ignatius observed, squeezing his mother’s drooping shoulder with the paw. “We must contact Myrna Minkoff, my lost love. She knows about those things.”
“It’s communiss,” the old man interrupted.
“How old is he?” the policeman asked Mrs. Reilly.
“I am thirty,” Ignatius said condescendingly.
“You got a job?”
“Ignatius hasta help me at home,” Mrs. Reilly said. Her initial courage was failing a little, and she began to twist the lute string with the cord on the cake boxes. “I got terrible arthuritis.”
“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labour, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
In the precinct the old man sat on a bench with the others, mostly shoplifters, who composed the late afternoon haul. He had neatly arranged along his thigh his Social Security card, his membership card in the St. Odo of Cluny Holy Name Society, a Golden Age Club badge, and a slip of paper identifying him as a member of the American Legion. A young black man, eyeless behind spaceage sunglasses, studied the little dossier on the thigh next to his.
“Whoa!” he said, grinning. “Say, you mus belong to everythin.”
The old man rearranged his cards meticulously and said nothing.
“How come they draggin in somebody like you?” The sunglasses blew smoke all over the old man’s cards. “Them po-lice mus be getting desperate.”
“I’m here in violation of my constitutional rights,” the old man said with sudden anger.
“Well, they not gonna believe that. You better think up something else.” A dark hand reached for one of the cards. “Hey, wha this mean, “Colder Age?”
The old man snatched the card and put it back on his thigh.
“Them little card not gonna do you no good. They throw you in jail anyway. They throw everybody in jail.”
“You think so?” the old man asked the cloud of smoke.
“Sure.” A new cloud floated up. “How come you here, man?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Whoa! This crazy. You gotta be here for somethin. Plenty time they pickin up color people for nothing, but, mister, you gotta be here for somethin.”
“I really don’t know,” the old man said glumly. “I was just standing in a crowd in front of D. H. Holmes.”
“And you lift somebody wallet.”
“No, I called a policeman a name.”
“Like wha you callin him?”
“Cawmniss! Ooo-woo. If I call a po-lice a cawmniss, my ass be in Angola right now for sure…”
An enjoyable reading experience, but at the end, there emerges the final question: was Dunces worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, or did the jury give in to the pressure of their guilt complex?