I just read it for the third time. Those of you who know me understand that that's saying a lot. I rarely read a book or see a movie more than once, even if I enjoyed it...there are so many more out there. The only other book I can think of that I've read multiple times is Joseph Heller's Catch-22.
But when I ran into A Confederacy of Dunces in the stacks of my favorite used book store, Black Sheep Books, I felt an endorphin surge and a rush of happy memories. Red and I had both read it a couple of times and enjoyed it very much.
Irreverent, funny as hell, gross, full of stereotypes, the book develops momentum as it rolls you from one rollicking adventure to another. The common thread is Ignatius C. Reilly, morbidly obese, overeducated, damp, smelly, with a pyloric valve that shuts on him in times of stress. He's misanthropic, and lives with his mother in a tiny flat in New Orleans. He spends his time in bed, writing in his journal (yellow Big Chief pads, in pencil, strewn all over his room), and writing inflammatory letters to that minx, Myrna Minkoff, a radical hippie, and his erstwhile partner and nemesis from their days in college.
His mother finally throws him out and tells him to get a job. He has no skills, and his attempts becoming gainfully employed are hilarious. He continually thwarts himself with his constant subterfuge, his appetite, his plain inability to get along with people. On the way, he becomes a rabble-rouser, espousing one cause after another in a Quixotic attempt to right wrongs (at least as he sees them).
The title, it says, is from Jonathan Swift, from "Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting": "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." I guess Ignatius is that unrecognized genius. He certainly thinks he is.
The book was copyrighted in 1080 by Thelma D. Toole, John Kennedy Toole's mother, eleven years after Toole's death by suicide. He connected a hose from the tailpipe of his car trough the window and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He had been unable to find a publisher for his book, which posthumously won the Pulitzer prize. Certainly a factor in his suicide was his depression, and his inability to have his novel published. I find that unbearably sad.
The events take place in the early 1960's in New Orleans, a city in which Toole lived with his mother and held various jobs, working as a street vendor, and another time in a garment factory, jobs Ignatius holds in the book. Art imitates life.
Despite its age and familiarity to me, I found nothing dated or stale in reading it this third time. Ignatius is no less outrageous than before, and, on rare occasions, almost, just almost, borders on the sympathetic.
I wonder if it would be a good movie. Probably not. Particularly not to those who've read the book. I felt that way about the movie made from Catch-22...one of the best books ever, one of the worst movies. It's tough to take a funny book, particularly if a lot of the humor is in the writing, and turn it into a funny movie.