The problem with writing about a funny book, like a good joke, is that you can't really describe it, you just have to retell it. And criticism is never so clearly a matter of taste as when it is applied to humor. I don't like the Three Stooges or Mel Brooks or even, except occasionally, Woody Allen. I am the kind of surly reader who doesn't laugh out loud at books, even at passages I find genuinely funny. I found myself laughing out loud again and again as I read this farcical, ribald book.
"A Confederacy of Dunces" orbits the corpulent figure of Ignatius J. Reilly from first page to last, and our first glimpse of Ignatius should only be told in the author's words:
"A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly's supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd for signs and bad taste."
Those "folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs" are a compact portrait of Ignatius' appearance, style, and attitude. He is the quintessential pessimist who is continually offended by the world ill-equipped to recognize his genius. An obese, mephitic 30- year-old M.A., he lives with his mother and spends most of his time in his room scribbling his orotund philosophy and history of society in Big Chief tablets, coming out only to grab an occasional Dr. Nut from the fridge, watch television, or visit the local movies to complain loudly about the lack of taste and decency being presented on the screen. He is one of the most repelling, entertaining, and, is some strange way, sympathetic characters I have ever encountered.
The setting is 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: Ignatius' well-meaning, loving, and incognizant mother, who keeps bottles of wine hidden in the oven; Burma Jones, whose unique southern/urban-black dialect is punctuated by emissions of "whoa!" and clouds of cigarette smoke; a bumbling policeman who is sent out on the street in himiliating disguises by a sardonic desk sergeant; and Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius' erstwhile girlfriend/nemesis whom we get to know through her militant letters to him (always starting with the salutation "Sirs:" from her habit of writing letters to the editor).
Ignatius is a medievalist whose fortunes take a downward turn when he is nearly arrested for being a "suspicious character." Things only get worse when he and his mother (leaving the Night of Joy bar, where they've gone to soothe their nerves after the near-arrest) run their car into a building, and Ignatius is forced to find a job to pay for the damages.
The rest of the story involves Ignatius' succession of jobs at Levy Pants and as a hot dog vendor, Patrolman Mancuso's dispirited attempts to arrest a real "suspicious character" or be thrown off the force, a high-school pornography ring being run out of the Night of Joy, and the widowed Mrs. Reilly's wooing by a well-to-do John Bircher who convinces her Ignatius is a "communiss."
The first and only novel completed by John Kennedy Toole before his death in 1969, this book is only now being published because Toole's mother brought a manuscript to Walker Percy, who reluctantly began to read it and soon realized that what he had in hand was "a great rumbling farce of Falstaffian dimensions."
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 essenses, 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 but 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.