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Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces

by John Kennedy Toole

(4/5 stars)

There are two ways of perceiving Cervantes's "Don Quixote." In the modern interpretation Don Quixote is an idealistic dreamer, a hopeless romantic battling the windmills of a bitter, cynical world. The more traditional (and I'd say correct) interpretation is that Don Quixote is a dangerous madman adhering to an outdated ideology and sowing havoc wherever he goes. Based on which interpretation you believe in, the novel can be seen as charmingly comic or darkly comic.

The same can be said for "A Confederacy of Dunces." Ignatius Reilly is Don Quixote of the bayou, a grossly overweight, strangely dressed believer in Medieval philosophy. He espouses these beliefs in notebooks, to his mother, at the movie theater (to the annoyance of patrons, ushers, and managers), and to any perspective employer. The only one close to understanding him might have been his dead collie, whom he loves in a not-entirely healthy way. The second closest is his former girlfriend--using the term loosely--Myrna Minkoff, an heiress turned political activist from New York.

Reilly's mother caters to his every need--such as supporting him through the better part of a decade of college, though it never leads him to a stable job--until she runs her car into a building while drunk. This leads her to forcing Reilly out into the world. His interactions with employees at a pants factory, a hot dog vendor, a gay man in the French Quarter, and a bar's employees create mayhem for Reilly and those he comes into contact with.

I think the prevailing view is to think of Ignatius Reilly as a madcap fish out of water, the idealistic dreamer interpretation. But it's not hard to also see him as a fat, selfish lout deserving of the scorn and ridicule he receives. Clearly Ignatius Reilly--like Don Quixote--is someone who takes himself and his ridiculously out-of-step views far too seriously, so you're never laughing WITH him so much as laughing AT him. It's up to you to decide just how mean-spirited the laughing at part is.

At any rate, it's unfortunate that John Kennedy Toole did not live long enough to hone his craft a bit more. Had he received some support and guidance he could have been one of the great American authors of his generation with the likes of Vonnegut, Updike, and of course Walker Percy, who at least made sure we could all read this novel. As it is, there are still some kinks in this, like how people are always screaming relatively ordinary lines of dialog or how the gay characters are stereotyped queens and butches.

Still, there's no question this is a good novel, and a funny novel as well, which is why it managed to endure even after the death of its author. NO matter how you should interpret it, you should read it.

On a side note, I think if Ignatius Reilly were around in modern times he would be writing his missives on the Internet instead of in notebooks. Mostly likely he'd be writing reviews in a blog...

That is all.

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