Book Review: A Confederacy of Dunces

310612Meet Ignatius J. Reilly, a 30-year-old savant who lives at home with his mother and fills his writing tablets with sophisticated musings on history and modern culture (he intends to publish them someday, of course). Reilly’s quiet existence descends into chaos when he is nearly arrested by an overeager policeman – who mistakes him for a “prevert” – and then involved in a car accident with his inebriated mother at the wheel. One thing leads to another (and another and another), and in the end, our hero finds himself doing the unthinkable: hunting for a job.

*audience utters a horrified gasp, begins whispering excitedly*

All this happens in the first fifty odd pages of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The remaining three hundred fifty are dedicated to showing us that finding a job and keeping a job are two different things – and Ignatius J. Reilly isn’t particularly good at either one.

I was drawn to this book for two reasons. First, because it won the Pultizer Prize and is widely regarded as a comic classic. Second, because it was highly recommended by Russell Moore, a man whom I greatly respect and admire:

… [A Confederacy of Dunces] is comic genius. Toole is able to plumb the accents and mindsets of the different communities and neighborhood of New Orleans better than any author I’ve ever seen. He also examines what it means to be a sojourner in a strange land. The protagonist is a native New Orleanian who never got past Baton Rouge in his travels beyond the city. Even so, he’s a stranger as one who is trying to grasp medieval philosophy as an “anchor” in a changing and shifting world.

For the record, I still respect and admire Mr. Moore – and I wouldn’t presume to set myself up as a better literary critic than he. I must, however, confess myself puzzled at his love for this book; puzzled at the accolades it has received; puzzled that it won any prize at all, let alone the Pulitzer.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m missing something. All I know is that A Confederacy of Dunces is the least hilarious “comic masterpiece” I have ever read.

There’s no denying Toole’s talent as a wordsmith. He writes in a beautifully zany way, and the dialogue sizzles and snaps like bacon in a skillet. And though I’ve never been to New Orleans, I fully enjoyed his lively, color-saturated description of the place. What I missed was the humor: and that’s not something you want to miss in a book that’s purportedly a laugh-riot.

The New Republic calls itone of the funniest books ever written… it will make you laugh out loud till your belly aches and your eyes water.” “You simply sweep along, unbelievably entranced,” says The Boston Globe. “It’s a masterwork,” declares The New York Times, “nothing less than a grand comic fugue.” The Washington Post dubs it “a corker, an epic high comedy, a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book.”

And these reviews make me wonder… Did we read the same book? Is there a Special Edition I failed to get my hands on? Am I, perhaps, an idiot?

(The Answers, Respectively: Yes. No. Mebbe so.)

My non-enjoyment of this book had much do with the fact that I detested the hero from start to finish. I say “hero” with my tongue in my cheek and a grimace on my face. Ignatius J. Reilly is loathsome, despicable, mean, uncouth, overeducated, arrogant, beastly, obnoxious, and downright gross. Enduring four hundred pages worth of this whiny, flatulent manchild didn’t simply push my buttons; it ruddy well smashed them.

Following Reilly’s attempts at finding and maintaining a proper job did have its amusing moments, but no matter how much I wanted to be blown over by gales of laughter, I never was. I don’t recall laughing out loud even once during the entire book. What about those bellyaches, New Republic, those streaming tears of mirth? Pish. I’ve read toothpaste labels that were funnier.

Maybe one day I’ll revisit Toole’s work and a lightbulb will suddenly flicker to life inside my skull and I’ll finally “get” why so many readers find it all so hilarious. For now, I’ll just stick to my Pratchett, my Wodehouse, and my Jerome. If you’ll excuse me…


12 thoughts on “Book Review: A Confederacy of Dunces”

  1. I’ve read many a work like. Nothing more annoying than never getting the joke everybody else is hunched over about. But I probably have more in common with a “Confederate Dunce” than Pullitzer Prize nominators…

  2. I read it when it was first published – and no book before or since so captured New Orleans for me — including the famous accent. But I don’t think it’s the kind of book that ages well — very few “comic” works do.

    1. “I read it when it was first published – and no book before or since so captured New Orleans for me — including the famous accent.”

      I loved that aspect of the book, too. Part of me regrets that Mr. Toole didn’t live to write more books – he certainly had the talent for it. Maybe not for comic writing, but still… ;)

  3. Heheh, yup been there. I’ve read my share of well written but definitely not funny books that the critics are raving out. I think the critics have like this deal, every now and then, that they all claim that a book is hilarious, or extremely well written, and then snicker gleefully in the corner while we poor humans scratch our heads and feel like morons for missing “it”.

  4. You misread it, Corey. It’s not Pulitzer Prize the book won. It was the Pullet Surprise.

    Now that we have that straightened out.

    I’ve read books like that before, so while I haven’t even heard of this one, I completely knew what you were talking about while reading your review. Sometimes I like reading a bad review of a book… breaks the monotony of plethoras of people giving books the thumbs up. :D

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