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John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces

Ignatius J Reilly is one of the great literary creations of the twentieth century. Character-driven books were less popular in the twentieth century than they had been in previous centuries. Few twentieth century characters can compare with those of Dickens, Balzac, Dostoevsky or with Don Quixote. However, Reilly is a true original, funny, repulsive and a man completely out of his time. He embodies many contradictions. He seemingly has gay tendencies but has a girlfriend with whom he exchanges hot sexual notes. He has issues with his mother, though he lives with her and depends on her. He allegedly hates the modern world – his favorite author and inspiration is Boethius – but seems to enjoy much of what it has to offer. However, there is one point on which he is not ambivalent. He is, in his own view, a genius, an unrecognised genius.

His problems start when he is arrested by a police officer, apparently for being a pervert. He avoids arrest and he and his mother go and console themselves at a local bar. On the way home, Mrs. Reilly, drunk and distracted, crashes the car, causing a lot of damage. Given that the sole source of income for the pair is her welfare check, she needs to raise some money quickly and decides to send Ignatius out into the employment market. His first job is with Levy Pants. He soon decides to take matters into his own hands as regards the running of the company and organises a demand for higher wages on behalf of the mainly black employees. Naturally, it does not work and Ignatius is once again out of work.

His next job is selling hot dogs. Naturally Ignatius tends to eat much of the profits. His boss sends him into the French Quarter where there are more tourists. However, there are problems. His friend George offers him money to temporarily store packages for him in his hot dog cart. Ignatius is unaware that the packages contain pornography but when he opens a package and finds a picture of a naked woman reading Boethius, he is naturally very impressed and endeavours to find the woman in question. With the help of another friend, he is invited to a show where he thinks she will appear. At the same time, he is planning to start a new political party with his friend, Dorian Greene, an overt gay, whose aim will be to have gays infiltrate the top political offices and replace war with sexual orgies. Of course, both events go horribly wrong and Toole has great fun with the resulting chaos at both events. However, Mrs. Reilly, who is about to remarry, is convinced that her son is insane and plans to have him committed. Like everyone else’s plans, hers do not succeed.

Some critics have accused Reilly and Toole’s story of being completely over the top and, indeed, that is the case and what makes this novel so worthwhile. It is hilariously funny and takes the theme of a man completely out of his time and place to another level. There is no question that Ignatius, an overweight, sweaty, farting, greedy and easily aroused man but one who is also intelligent, creative and of apparently good intentions, is a wonderful creation. This novel is also the New Orleans novel, as we see not just the tourist New Orleans but the New Orleans of its inhabitants and, as with many good novels, the city becomes character. But it is Ignatius J. Reilly who will stay with you for some time.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Louisiana State University Press